Sexual harassment in the workplace is a very serious and quite pervasive issue – a Eurofound report in 2005 found that 5% of female workers in the United Kingdom had reported incidents of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual attention. These figures – in reality – probably under-represent the amount of workplace sexual harassment that occurs – not all women will want to report incidents of sexual harassment for political or personal reasons. However, if you do think that you’re being subjected to workplace sexual harassment then this article is intended to lay out the legal definition of what constitutes sexual harassment and what you should and can do if you believe you’ve been sexually harassed. It’ll do so by examining the following:
- What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
- How do you know if you’ve been sexually harassed?
- What you should do if you think you’ve been sexually harassed?
What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
We’re going to look at the legal definition of workplace sexual harassment in this section. Sexual harassment is unlawful under s.26 of the Equality Act 2010. It is defined as:
“Sexual harassment or unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or of violating their dignity”
The conduct clearly has to be unwanted – if the employee signals acceptance or even enjoyment of the conduct then the conduct could not be classed as sexual harassment. However, if the employee signalled acceptance once but later communicated that she (or he) was unhappy with the conduct then this would be classed as sexual harassment (should it occur again). “Conduct” itself can either be actions or remarks
Example: Ms X’s line manager, Mr Y, puts up a calendar of naked women in the office. He later remarks to Ms X that she could be in the calendar herself, she was so good looking.
The action of putting the calendar up could be argued to be sexual harassment (and certainly indirect sex discrimination) but it’s more likely that Ms X would succeed in showing that sexual harassment had occurred with the remark toward her. Actions or remarks, therefore, can constitute sexual harassment.
How do you know if you’ve been sexually harassed?
Sexual harassment is normally a “male-on-female” incident but there are several less common permutations that can apply, including:
- Female workers sexually harassing male workers
- Gay male workers sexually harassing other male workers
- Gay female workers sexually harassing other female workers
It’s normally fairly clear as to whether you’ve been harassed or not – you’ll know whether you’ve been a victim of conduct which was sexual in nature. As above, such conduct need not be restricted to actions – it can also include remarks.
What you should do if you think you’ve been sexually harassed?
If you think you’ve been sexually harassed you should ideally report all incidents to your line manager or another suitably responsible person. If your employer fails to investigate or to deal with the matter properly then you have a number of options. You can, for example:
- Submit a sexual harassment claim in the Employment Tribunal
- Resign and claim constructive dismissal (as well as submitting a sexual harassment claim) in the Employment Tribunal – you may want to enter into a compromise agreement with your employer instead of going all the way to the Tribunal; or
- Do nothing