Sexual harassment in the workplace

Your workplace should be a safe space, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Sometimes your colleagues' behaviours can leave you feeling uncomfortable, or even intimidated. If you feel like you’re being sexually harassed in the workplace, don’t be afraid to speak up. Read on as we explain what counts as sexual harassment in the workplace and what you can do about it.

What counts as sexual harassment in the workplace?

Although the Protection of Harassment act 1997 protected victims of harassment, the Equality Act 2010 goes one step further in legally categorising what counts as sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s unlawful discrimination and the official definition is “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.” Essentially, an act that amounts to harassment is any type of behaviour, sexual in nature, that may be unwanted, inappropriate, and/or intimidating.

While this doesn’t make it a criminal offence, there are still repercussions for the perpetrator. This largely depends on the type of harassment and can vary from a slap on the wrist (don’t get us started) to a restraining order or, in severe cases, jail time.

So what counts as harassment in practice? Here are some rough ideas:

  • Inappropriate touching without your consent 
  • Sexual comments and jokes, either in person or over social media
  • Comments on your body and clothing 
  • Questions about your sex life or sexual orientation
  • Showing sexual photos or videos in any form of electronic communication, or physically 
  • Intruding on personal space 
  • More extreme behaviours include rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. 

Sadly, many victims are often told to keep quiet in return for benefits, such as secure employment. It’s a terrifying and damaging situation to be in, but we promise that help is available to get you out of it.

You don’t have to put up with sexual harassment at work

Being the subject of sexual harassment at work is traumatic to say the least. You may question their motives and end up second guessing yourself. Was it as bad as you remember? Are you being overdramatic? Will this cause unnecessary commotion in the workplace?  

Yes, no and no again. If you feel uncomfortable with someone else’s behaviour then you have every right to stand against it. No matter what others may tell you, the only thing that matters in this situation is how the encounter affected you.

How to stop sexual harassment in the workplace

If you feel safe enough, you can call the person out on their sleazy actions. The earlier you do this the better. Try not to get too wordy. Say you’ve noticed how they’ve been acting around you and that it makes you feel uncomfortable. Short, firm and right to the point. Nip it in the bud. This is a good way to go about it since they genuinely may not realise how their behaviour is making you feel or even know what counts as harassment (That’s no excuse for it, but at least they won’t be utterly humiliated and you can stop it happening to anyone else)

If this doesn’t go well, or you’d rather not confront them directly, then have a chat with your line manager. Hopefully they can take the complaint further. Just remember to make sure that this conversation is in writing.

The last resort, in case the last two options don’t work out, is raising a formal grievance with your HR team. When you take this route it’s doubly important to make sure you keep any evidence of the harassment, and keep a note of the incidents, including details, the time, and the place.

If you’re worried about reporting sexual harassment at work

There is still a lot of stigma behind reporting sexual harassment. A 2020 government report on sexual harassment in the workplace found that: 

  • 29% of employees in the UK experienced a form of sexual harassment in the 12 months prior
  • Only 15% reported their experience formally 
  • The most common outcome for the perpetrator (in 41% of the cases) was to for them to walk away with no consequences

It’s understandable that, after seeing these stats, you may feel reluctant to report sexual harassment at work; reasons for this may include fear of making things worse, not being believed, or being treated differently. We get it, it’s an emotionally draining process. But attitudes are changing and you deserve respect. Please know that you do not have to put up with this type of behaviour.

Now more than every, with things like the #MeToo movement, people are taking allegations seriously. We’re moving into a new era. An era of empowerment. People are finally starting use their voices to speak out against the heinous acts that are committed in our country, sexual harassment being one of them. If and when you feel ready to speak out, we’re here for you.

Further support to stop sexual harassment at work

Here are some extra resources to help you out:

  • If you’ve received little or no support after reporting sexual harassment, or it seems to have made things worse, there are other options available. For example, you can make a claim at an employment tribunal which could get the case taken to county court under certain circumstances. 
  • Try not to give up hope. Make sure you gather as much evidence as possible to support your case, and make a phone call to a friend and/or family member for emotional support. You don’t have to deal with this alone.
  • Check out our article on bullying in the workplace here, and take a look at our other working life resources for more support articles.
  • Have you experienced sexual harassment at work? Find support by joining the community on our discussion boards. Our Crisis Messenger provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK.
  •  If you’re aged 25 or under, you can text THEMIX to 85258. After that, we’d recommend speaking to Citizens Advice or Acas to seek the best advice for your situation.

Next Steps

  • Our Crisis Messenger provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK. If you’re aged 25 or under, you can text THEMIX to 85258
  • Find your local Citizens Advice here, for free and independent legal advice. Or call their helpline. 03454 04 05 06
  • Acas offers free advice about everything to do with employment law. 0300 123 1100
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 26-Mar-2022