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Sexual harassment at work

Published 17 October 2023

Work-related harassment of a sexual nature remains an ongoing problem despite a greater focus on the issue in recent times.

It is the type of harassment that is unwanted workplace behaviour that can target employees, workers, contractors, self-employed people and job applicants.

What counts as sexual harassment is unwelcome treatment that either violates someone's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them, whether it was intended or not

Employers must do all they reasonably can to protect staff from sexual harassment and take steps to prevent it happening. The Equality Act 2010 makes this type of harassment unlawful[1 cited 17.10.23]

We have seen in recent years a much greater emphasis on unwanted sexual behaviour in workplaces, and more robust and decisive action being taken to deal with both current and historic reports of it.

But the fact that much work is still needed to combat sexual harassment at work, was again highlighted in a couple of recent cases.

Last week it was reported that a senior female executive at an investment firm won a sexual harassment claim after her married male boss made a ‘determined and excessive’ attempt to form a romantic relationship with her when she joined the firm[2 cited 17.10.23]

An employment tribunal in Southampton heard how he gave her gifts, referred to her as his ‘second wife’ and suggested they buy a house together in Cyprus.

The size of any compensation to be awarded in the case has yet to be decided.

And in what was reported at the time as the latest sexism scandal to beset the insurance industry, which has long been male-dominated and marred by inappropriate behaviour towards women working in the sector, a female City worker won more than £1.2 million after her boss sexually harassed her[3 cited 17.10.23]

A London-based employment tribunal ruled that she was unfairly dismissed and upheld complaints of direct sex discrimination, sex-related harassment and maternity-related discrimination.

Reports of the ruling included inappropriate comments made by the woman’s boss, which a three-judge panel found were ‘sexist, demeaning and derogatory but an attempted joke nonetheless — which went badly wrong and should never have been made.’

Although women are usually victims, research has found a significant percentage of men are also victims of sexual harassment at work.

The most recent UK study that included figures for men was published in July 2021 by the Government Equalities Office and IFF Research[4 cited 17.10.23]

The study was based on a survey of more than 12,000 individuals who had experienced sexual harassment at work or in a place of study.  

The research found that men were almost as likely to experience workplace harassment as women (the incidence of experiencing harassment was 30 per cent among women and 27 per cent among men) although there were differences in the types of sexual harassment experienced.

Among all of those who had chosen to report sexual harassment at work, satisfaction with the process and with the outcome were relatively low.

Two-in-five (40 per cent) of victims saw their job change in some way as a result of taking action – increasing to 50 per cent among those who reported the harassment.

The most common outcome for the victim was to choose to look for a new job (17 per cent); in contrast, two-fifths (41 per cent) said there were no consequences for their perpetrator (19 per cent among those who formally reported it).

Sexual harassment is a widespread and serious issue that affects the lives and well-being of individuals of all genders.

How businesses prevent such behaviour, tackle it and support the victims can be challenging.

Employers do have a legal and moral responsibility to prevent and address it in their workplaces, and to ensure that any individual who reports an allegation of a sexual nature is not treated unfairly.

Understanding what counts as sexual harassment

It is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that can occur in person or in other ways, such as online or through phone calls.

Some examples of sexual harassment include:

Flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone’s body, clothing or appearance

Asking questions about someone’s sex life

Telling sexually offensive jokes

Making sexual comments or jokes about someone’s sexual orientation or gender reassignment

Displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content

Touching, hugging, kissing or groping someone without their consent

Sending or requesting sexual messages, photos or videos

Exposing oneself or making sexual gestures

Making unwanted sexual advances or propositions

Pressuring someone to have sex or go on a date

Sexual harassment can be a one-off incident or an ongoing pattern of behaviour. It can have a serious impact on someone’s mental and physical health, work performance and career prospects.

Preventing sexual harassment at work

To reiterate, employers have a legal and moral responsibility to prevent and address sexual harassment  in the workplace.

All employers, regardless of the size of an organisation, should have an established and effective policy to deal with it. Any policy should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure it is effective.

Such a policy should make clear what type of behaviour can amount to sexual harassment, how an employee who is targeted can report it, and what actions will be taken to deal with it.

Businesses can be proactive and take preventive measures such as changing the physical environment if necessary, reviewing working practices and providing alternative ways of communication.

Educating and training staff on policy and the expectations of appropriate behaviour, as well as the consequences of any improper conduct, is essential.

Providing the right support and protection for any employee who experiences or reports sexual harassment is vital. It should be more than  providing a telephone number for an Employee Assistance Programme. Meaningful support should include talking to the victim to best understand what help would be practical and beneficial at that time.

Dealing with complaints efficiently and without delay is crucial, as is conducting a fair and transparent procedure in response to a complaint and making sure that it respects the rights and interests of all parties involved.

Senior management should always lead by example in creating a culture of zero-tolerance of sexual harassment, and one in which everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

How to deal with a report of sexual harassment

Where an allegation of sexual harassment is made against any employee, an employer should take it seriously and never treat it dismissively e.g. it was just banter. The matter should be handled sensitively and confidentially.

Any investigation should be full and fair and conducted in line with the ACAS Code of Practice[5 cited 17.10.23]. The procedure should include:

  • Informing the employee of any allegation made against them and giving the individual a reasonable opportunity to respond and explain their version of events.
  • Conducting a thorough and impartial investigation, gathering evidence from those involved and any witnesses.
  • Reaching an outcome based on the facts and evidence, and communicate it in writing to the parties involved.
  • Taking appropriate action to resolve the issue, which could include issuing a warning, providing training or counselling, transferring or suspending the employee accused, or dismissing them for gross misconduct in serious cases.
  • Offer support and protection to employees affected by the process.

Anyone affected in any way by sexual harassment at work should seek expert advice and support.

If you are an employee you can contact our Employee Support Centre, or employers who need help to deal with a complaint can contact the Employer Support Centre

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