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Sexual harassment in the workplace is sadly still commonplace. Many suffer in silence, too ashamed or afraid to speak out against it. Read this article for practical advice and learn how to put a stop to sexual harassment for good.


Many of us still imagine sexual harassment to be something from the past. It might conjure up images of the 1950s, when secretaries were often subjected to lewd comments sexual advances. We’ve moved on since then, surely?

It is all too easy to pretend sexual harassment doesn’t happen anymore. However, the recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, as well as the global #metoo movement, all prove sexual harassment is still a widespread problem.

This article explores what sexual harassment is, how common it is and what actions you can take if you are experiencing it. There are also useful contact details at the end for seeking further advice.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace takes many forms. Contrary to what some people believe, it isn’t always verbal or physical. There are plenty of other ways to make someone feel uncomfortable.

In the UK, sexual harassment is recognised as illegal discrimination under the Equality Act 2010[1]. This legislation says sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that:

  • Violates your dignity, or
  • Creates a hostile, intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment

If you reject or submit to such harassment and receive less favourable treatment by the harasser as a result or your rejection/submission, then the Equality Act also considers this sexual harassment.

According to UK-based charity Rape Crisis[2], some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Unwelcome touching, sexual advances or propositions
  • Displaying sexual images in the workplace
  • Text message or emails with sexual words or images
  • Sexual jokes, comments or gestures
  • Someone staring or leering at your body

The Equality and Human Rights Commission[3] also include the following as examples of sexual harassment:

  • Intrusive questions about an individual’s private/sex life
  • Spreading sexual rumours about someone
  • Making promises in return for sexual favours

The Equality Act protects you from being harassed by anyone in the workplace. It doesn’t matter whether the harasser is a manager, colleague, customer, client or visitor. Sexual harassment can also happen outside the office, such as at office parties or conferences.

Both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment. Similarly, both men and women can be the perpetrators. And it doesn’t matter whether someone is straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans - all can be victims or perpetrators.

If someone touches you sexually without your consent, this is sexual assault under the Sexual Offences Act 2003[4] and is a crime. Stalking is also a crime under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012[5]. You can report incidents of sexual assault, stalking and rape to the police.

How common is sexual harassment?

Statistics show that sexual harassment is depressingly common.

A UN survey discovered 55% of women within the European Union have experienced sexual harassment at least once since age 15. Of these, 32% experienced it within the workplace[6]. Similarly, a BBC survey found that half of British women and one fifth of British men have been sexually harassed at work or a place of study[7].

According to the FRA (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights), European women with a university degree experience sexual harassment the most. Sexual harassment is also more common for women working in managerial and professional roles, with 75% of women in top management and 74% of women in professional occupations having experienced it[8].

How can you deal with sexual harassment?

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, employees are protected by the law. There are a few ways you can deal with the issue.

The first step can be to tell the harasser that you find their behaviour offensive[9]. This can often resolve the issue, and if it doesn’t, then at least you have spoken out. If the harassment is severe, then you should undoubtedly take more serious action.

According to Citizen’s Advice[10], victims of sexual harassment should record the harassment in a diary. Keep a list of dates and detail exactly what happened. Then, inform your manager in writing and keep a copy of the email/letter for yourself. You can also ask your HR team or trade union for advice. In the event of sexual assault, stalking or a physical attack, however, go straight to the police.

Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service)[11] advise that you try to get the problem resolved with your workplace first. If the harassment continues after you have raised your concerns, you can contact Acas and take the matter to an employment tribunal.

Useful contacts

Citizen’s Advice offer free and confidential advice on a variety of legal issues. You can contact them online or by calling 03444 111 444 in England/03444 77 20 20 in Wales. They also offer a webchat service here.

Rape Crisis provide free help and support for victims of sexual violence. Visit them online or call 0808 802 9999.

Acas can help employees and employers with employment law. They can help resolve problems at work, such as harassment. Before taking your complaint to an employment tribunal, contact them first. You can ask a question online here or call 0300 123 1100.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission offer expert advice regarding discrimination and human rights. Call them on 0808 800 0082 or visit their website.

List of references

[1] The National Archives (2010). Equality Act 2010. Available: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/26. Last accessed: 26th February 2018.

[2] Rape Crisis (2018). Sexual Harassment. Available: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/sexualharassment.php. Last accessed: 26th February 2018

[3] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2007). Sexual harassment and the law: Guidance for employers. Available: https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/sexual-harassment-and-the-law-guidance-for-employers.pdf. Last accessed: 27th February 2018.

[4] Crown Prosecution Service (2003). Rape and Sexual Offences – Chapter 2: Sexual Offences Act 2003. Available: https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/rape-and-sexual-offences-chapter-2-sexual-offences-act-2003-principal-offences-and. Last accessed: 27th February 2018.

[5] National Stalking Helpline (2016). About the law. Available: https://web.archive.org/web/20160403021118/http://www.stalkinghelpline.org:80/faq/about-the-law. Last accessed: 27th February 2018.

[6] UN Women (2018). Violence Against Women – interactive infographic. Available: http://interactive.unwomen.org/multimedia/infographic/changingworldofwork/en/index.html. Last accessed: 26th February 2018.

[7] BBC (2017). 'Half of women' sexually harassed at work, says BBC survey. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41741615. Last accessed: 26th February 2018.

[8] FRA (2014). Violence against women: an EU-wide survey. Available: http://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/violence-against-women-euwide-survey. Last accessed: 26th February 2018.

[9] FindLaw (2018). Sexual Harassment: Actions You Can Take. Available: http://employment.findlaw.com/employment-discrimination/sexual-harassment-actions-you-can-take.html. Last accessed: 27th February 2018.

[10] Citizen’s Advice (2018). Sexual harassment. Available: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/discrimination/what-are-the-different-types-of-discrimination/sexual-harassment/. Last accessed: 27th February 2018.

[11] Acas (2018). Sexual harassment. Available: http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=6078. Last accessed: 27th February 2018.

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Stephanie Rowe

Content Manager at Knowledge Train.