Sexual harassment in the workplace

Your workplace should be a safe space, but sometimes your colleagues' behaviours can leave you feeling uncomfortable, or even intimidated. If you feel like you're being sexually harassed then there are steps you can take to ensure you're treated with the respect you deserve.

young woman looks out of window pensively

If it makes you uncomfortable, you have a right to say something.

What counts as sexual harassment? 

The Equality Act 2010 categorises sexual harassment under unlawful discrimination. It describes it as: “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.” 

The term covers any behaviour of a sexual nature that may be unwanted, inappropriate, and intimidating.  

In the workplace, this includes: 

  • Inappropriate touching without your consent 
  • Sexual comments and jokes, either in person or over email 
  • Comments on your body and clothing 
  • Questions about your sex life
  • Showing sexual photos or videos 
  • Intruding on personal space 

More extreme behaviours include rape and sexual assault. Victims are often told to keep quiet in returns for benefits such as secure employment. It’s a terrifying and damaging situation to be in. 

What do I do if I experience it? 

Being the subject of sexual harassment at work is horrible. You may question motives or second guess yourself. Is it as bad as you imagine? Are you being overdramatic? Should you just put up with it?  

Yes, no and no again. If you feel uncomfortable with someone else’s behaviour then you have every right to stand against it. 

If you feel comfortable enough, you can pull the person up on their behaviour. The earlier you do this the better. Say you’ve noticed how they’ve been acting around you and that you’d appreiciate it if they didn’t. Short and firm. Nip it in the bud. They genuinely may not realise how their behaviour is making you feel.  

If this doesn’t go well, or you’re uncomfortable speaking to them in the first place, then speak with your line manager. Hopefully they can take the complaint further. Ensure that this conversation is in writing for evidence.  

If nothing changes, you can raise a formal grievance with your HR team. Make sure you keep any evidence of the harassment, and keep a note of the incidents, including details, the time, and the place.  

I’m worried about being ignored 

There is still a lot of stigma behind reporting sexual harassment. In October 2017, a report by Opinium Research showed that: 

  • One in five women had been sexually harassed in the workplace 
  • 58% of these women did not report it 
  • For those who did report it, 12% say the incident was brushed under the carpet  
  • 31% said no action was taken 

It’s understandable that, with these stats, you may feel reluctant to report sexual harassment at work in fear of making things worse, not being believed, or being treated differently. It can be an emotionally draining process. But attitudes are changing and, as we keep saying, you deserve respect.  

And you know what? This report showed that young people are more likely to report harassment. Also, a YouGov survey, from October 2017, showed that young people are more likely to recognise sexual harassment in the first place. You are the empowered generation, and that’s awesome. Just remember to look after yourself, treat yourself kindly, and speak to friends and family for support.  

I need to take it further 

If you’ve received little or no support after reporting sexual harassment, or it seems to have made things worse, you can take things further. One option is making a claim at an employment tribunal. 

Try not to give up hope. Make sure you gather as much evidence as possible to support your case, and lean on friends and family for emotional support. You don’t have to deal with this alone. 

If you need more support, 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.


Updated on 09-Nov-2017