Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment

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All employers have a legal duty to protect staff from sexual harassment. With 70% of women experiencing or witnessing workplace sexual harassment, you can take action to prevent and address sexual harassment in your business.

This test will help you to understand sexual harassment and what you can do about it. The accompanying resources include information on how to develop a workplace policy on sexual harassment, how to deal with reports and investigations, and what you can do to create a workplace culture that prevents sexual harassment from happening in the first place.

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Our suite of guidance will support you to deliver a best practice approach to preventing sexual harassment in your workplace.

What employers need to know about sexual harassment

  • Sexual harassment is widespread. It can happen to anyone, but women are most often the victim, and men the perpetrator.
  • Even if you’ve never received a report of sexual harassment, this doesn’t mean sexual harassment has never happened in your business.
  • Sexual harassment is unwanted, or unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature. It covers a spectrum including sexual comments, displaying sexually graphic images, repeated unwelcome sexual advances, and unwanted touching.
  • It doesn’t matter if the person didn’t intend to cause distress or harm - if it makes someone feel uncomfortable or unsafe than it’s sexual harassment.
  • Sexual harassment can also happen outside of working hours and/or the workplace. It also doesn’t just happen face to face, but through email, text and online platforms.
  • Sexual harassment isn’t just an issue between two people but a part of a wider problem with workplace culture, and gender inequality in the workplace.
  • Women who report sexual harassment want to be listened to and taken seriously, for there to be appropriate consequences for the perpetrator, and to be able to have confidence in the reporting process.
  • Women don’t usually report sexual harassment because they worry no one will believe them or that it will affect their job.
  • Sometimes women don’t report because it’s their line manager or another senior member of staff.
  • Dismissing sexual harassment as ‘just a joke’ or ‘banter’ is harmful for everyone.
  • When women aren’t valued in the workplace, it makes it harder for them to feel like they will be believed.

You can find more information and guidance in our resource What your business needs to know about workplace sexual harassment.

What employers need to do about sexual harassment

  • Your organisation has a legal responsibility to respond to, and prevent sexual harassment in your workplace. Our resources will help you meet your legal duties.

  • You should have a clear procedure for dealing with reports of sexual harassment to ensure you’re able to properly deal with reports.
  • You can challenge sexual harassment by responding to disclosures or reports in an non-judgemental and supportive way.
  • You should take reports seriously and treat them as credible. If someone reports sexual harassment and you don’t do anything about it, this sends a message that sexual harassment is accepted in your workplace.

You can find more on what you need to do to prevent and address sexual harassment in your business in our resources.

Why our resources focus on women

We recognise that both women and men experience sexual harassment. This resource focuses on women’s experiences of sexual harassment. This is because the vast majority of people who experience sexual harassment are women, while the vast majority of perpetrators are men. Research shows that where men are sexually harassed, the perpetrator is most likely to be another man.

You need to recognise the gendered nature of sexual harassment to deal with it effectively.

Different groups of staff also have particular experiences of sexual harassment, shaped by homophobia, racism and ableism. For example, LGBT people are more likely than straight people to receive unwelcome comments about their sex life. BME women experience racialised sexual harassment, because they are characterised as being 'more sexual’ than white women. Disabled women are twice as likely as non-disabled women to experience unwanted touching.

Gender inequality is the root cause of sexual harassment. Women still have less power and status than men in the workplace, and it’s this that creates an environment in which sexualised comments are dismissed as ‘just banter’, in which women are told ‘it wasn’t meant that way’, and in which women aren’t believed. This power imbalance is even more acute for BME women, LGBT women, disabled women and young women. It is also why male harassers are rarely held accountable.

It’s important to recognise and understand this if you are serious about preventing sexual harassment in your workplace. Understanding how sexist attitudes and power imbalances enable sexual harassment is the first step to getting it right.

This doesn't mean you'll be treating staff differently because of their gender. When you take action to prevent sexual harassment in your workplace, you’ll improve things for all your employees.

Why women don't report sexual harassment

It’s easy to think that sexual harassment doesn’t happen in your business. You may never have had an employee report sexual harassment. However, an absence of reports doesn't mean it hasn't happened.

Sexual harassment is often under-reported. A TUC survey found that 79% of victim-survivors did not report unwanted sexual behaviour to their employer.

Women say that don’t report sexual harassment because:

  • They think nothing will change
  • They think they won’t be believed
  • They think it will be treated as ‘just a joke’ or ‘banter’
  • Their colleagues or friends have reported it and nothing happened
  • They worry it could have negative personal consequences, like being blocked for promotion
  • The harasser is their line manager or a senior leader, or an important client of the business
  • They don’t know how to report it

Even where women want to report sexual harassment, they can be discouraged by the person they report it to from taking it further.

You can find out more about how to encourage employees to report sexual harassment in our resources.

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