Drawing the line on sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is far more common than many people realised. As an employer, are you equipped to deal with it effectively?

Recent news from the US has highlighted a global problem that has been prevalent for years though often unreported and badly handled by companies. Here's what you should know.

With sexual harassment all over the news and women from all walks of life disclosing that they also have been harassed, using the hashtag #metoo, it seems that harassment of a sexual nature has never really left the workplace.

It is more crucial than ever that employers are not only aware of the risk of an employee sexually harassing another but also that they are ready for the fall out with clear, robust and fair policies and procedures in place.

What constitutes harassment may be subjective to a degree and employers would do well to remember that what one person views as a few harmless jokes can be perceived by the person on the receiving end as unwanted behaviour that is demeaning and threatening causing alarm and distress.

It is not up to the person exhibiting the behaviour to decide whether or not it is harassment.

A recipient of this sort of behaviour is entitled to look to the employer to take action, this is part of the employer’s duty of care towards its employees. So you can see that failing to take this seriously could result in a number of problems for the employer, including being held to task for breaching the contract of employment by allowing such conduct to continue.

What is sexual harassment exactly?

The simple rule is that harassment occurs when an individual makes sexual overtures that are unwanted and does not stop when asked to do so.

When does sexual harassment become a criminal offence?

Any form of sexual harassment in the workplace is covered by the Equality Act (2010) which provides considerable civil protection for anyone who is on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention at work.

This Act helps ensure that employees have recourse to law in a host of potential "grey areas" where behaviour might be unpleasant but not illegal outside of the workplace, but has different connotations in the context of employment because of an employee's diminished power to take a stand or walk away.

Offences under this Act are Civil not Criminal and are dealt with by an Employment Tribunal if they go to law.

The Protection from Harassment Act (1997) criminalises behaviour such as unwanted phone calls and messages, visits to home or work, taking personal photographs, unwanted advances and persistent and distressing comments

The Malicious Communications Act (1997) provides protection and remedies in cases where indecent, offensive or threatening letters, emails or messages via social media or text are sent.

Any sort of unwanted, non-consensual sexual touching that occurs anywhere, not just at work, is covered by the Sexual Offences Act (2003).

Preventative Measures

You can do a great deal to prevent this sort of situation occurring by having clear and uncompromising policies in place that let everyone know that there is a line and there are consequences if it is crossed.

You also need to be sure that employees know they can talk to someone if they are bothered by a colleague's behaviour or remarks. That should either be you yourself as the employer or, if you don't have a specific HR manager, someone else in a defined position of authority in the business. 

Every company should provide staff with an Employee's Handbook. A well defined set of policies and procedures can be laid out which implicitly or explicitly deal with harassment issues and this can go a long way towards creating conditions where sexual harassment never becomes a problem for your business.

Don't assume this is a problem that only affects women - it isn't. It's far less spoken of, and victims are less likely to report the behaviour, but men can also be targets of unwanted and inappropriate behaviour. Likewise, not all perpetrators are male.

What to do if an allegation of sexual harassment is made.

If they are going to get up each morning and come in and do their job to the best of their ability, your employees should feel comfortable, respected and supported at work. However much people love their jobs and are motivated and ambitious to work hard and develop their skills, the bottom line is that they come to work because, for financial or contractual reasons, they have to.

That's why sexual harassment at work takes on an entirely different legal complexion to what might be OK at the pub. There is an issue of power involved, particularly where managers or directors may be the perpetrators.

That's why it's your responsibility as the employer to take action.

First and foremost, I can't say this strongly enough:


  • Take your personal feelings about either person involved out of the equation - you are dealing with a legally contentious matter. Be professional, regardless of how well you know one or both people involved, don't jump to conclusions and get legal advice as soon as possible.

  • For businesses who maybe haven't reached the point of having an HR Support function in house an allegation of this sort can hit like a bolt of lightning. If you have a qualified HR professional onboard they will know what to do and how to put formal processes in action.

  • Hopefully you at least have a formal grievance procedure in place and you must inform the person making the complaint that you will be following that.

  • If you do not have any kind of qualified professional HR & Legal support in place, call us and we can provide you with both on an immediate basis.

  • It is best to have a qualified professional conduct any interviews with either the victim or alleged perpetrator. It takes you out of the equation personally and ensures that the law is followed and both parties have their rights protected.

  • If the matter unfortunately warrants police action do NOT, under any circumstances, delay or encourage the victim to do so.

Sexual Harassment in the workplace is a highly prevalent problem, it has been for years even if it is relatively recently that the extent of it has become public knowledge.

With clear policies in place, and a set of guidelines and procedures for staff to follow you are far better placed to draw the line on harassment in your business and to protect both your staff and your business from the actions of unpleasant, sexually incontinent individuals.

“A recipient of this sort of behaviour is entitled to look to the employer to take action, this is part of the employer’s duty of care towards its employees.,

So you can see that failing to take this seriously could result in a number of problems for the employer, including being held to task for breaching the contract of employment by allowing such conduct to continue.”

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Vanessa Challess
Vanessa is the founder and Managing Partner of Tiger HR and Tiger Law. With years of experience as a litigation specialist, she founded the Tiger Group to provide SME business owners with easier, more affordable access to the essential legal & HR services they need as their business grows and develops. She blogs on a wide range of legal & HR issues with the goal of equipping entrepreneurs with no frills, easy to understand information to keep them on the right side of the law.
Vanessa Challess

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