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Sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment occurs when an individual engages in unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It has the purpose or effect of:

  • violating someone’s dignity
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual concerned 

‘Of a sexual nature’ can cover verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct including unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings, or sending emails with material of a sexual nature. For more information on harassment and what this means, see our page on sex discrimination

Experiencing sexual harassment is one of the most difficult situations a person can face in the workplace. No workplace is immune to sexual harassment and a lack of reported cases does not necessarily mean that they have not occurred. Recent high-profile testimonies and sharing of experiences on social media have highlighted sexual harassment in a range of workplaces, and the real barriers that many experience in reporting it.   

Employers are responsible for ensuring that employees do not face harassment in their workplace. They have a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect their employees and will be legally liable if they fail to do so.

What are we doing?

We have written to large employers across Great Britain to ask them to provide evidence about what safeguards they have in place to prevent sexual harassment, what steps they have taken to ensure that all employees are able to report instances of harassment and how they plan to prevent harassment in the future. 

We also asked individuals to fill in a survey on sexual harassment in the workplace. We wanted to hear from people who had experienced, witnessed or supported others with workplace sexual harassment, to tell us what might have helped in their case and what changes need to be made to tackle this issue.

We wanted to make sure that the voices of people who have been affected shape the solutions we propose. The survey closed on 19 January 2018.

We are responsible for encouraging equality and diversity, eliminating unlawful discrimination, and protecting and promoting the human rights of everyone in Britain. This includes working towards everyone having access to a workplace free of harassment. 

What will we do with the information? 

We will use the evidence provided to understand what steps employers are taking to ensure that their workplaces are free from sexual harassment. We also want to find out if staff feel able to report sexual harassment without fear of victimisation and are confident that investigations will be conducted appropriately. We will report in early 2018, highlighting best practice and proposing recommendations for reform.  

If we discover that employers are failing we will consider exercising our enforcement powers, such as investigations into organisations to ensure that employees are protected.

Support for employers

The ACAS website website contains information about handling complaints of sexual harassment and includes an advice line if you need further information.

You can also download our guide to sexual harassment and the law: guidance for employers.

Support for individuals

There are a number of organisations who offer support to people who may have experienced harassment, including:

Victim Support is an independent charity which provides free, confidential and tailored support to victims of crime, regardless of whether the crime has been reported or how long ago it happened. 

Rape Crisis England and Wales is a feminist organisation that promotes the needs and rights of women and girls who have experienced sexual violence, to improve services to them and to work towards the elimination of sexual violence.

You can find details of the advice line and your nearest service on the Rape Crisis website.

Samaritans is a charity who can provide emotional support for workers who are struggling to cope and need somebody to listen to them.

Call 999 if you or someone else is in immediate danger or if a crime is in progress. Call 101 to contact the police if the crime is not an emergency. For information on crime and policing in England and Wales, and to find your neighbourhood team, visit the police.uk website. For Scotland, visit the Police Scotland website.

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Last updated: 22 Jan 2018