Sexual harassment in the workplace and how to reduce the risks

Following a UK government study in 2021, a staggering 29% of those in employment confirmed that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their workplace or work-related environment in the last 12 months.

So what is sexual harassment, what impact can this have on the workplace and as an employer, and what can I do to reduce the risk of sexual harassment taking place in my workplace?

What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 confirms that sexual harassment is unwanted conduct, which is of a sexual nature or is related to gender or sex which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. 

Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature may include a wide range of behaviours. Specific examples would be making sexual remarks, gesturing about someone’s appearance, telling sexually offensive jokes, displaying or sharing pornography, touching someone against their will and in a worst-case scenario, sexual assault or rape.

Sexual harassment in the workplace can happen to and be carried out by men and women, and a person can be sexually harassed by someone of the same or different sex. Within the workplace, an employee could experience sexual harassment from anyone they come into contact with, including a colleague (including a manager or someone in a position of authority) or from a customer, client or member of the public.

So as an employer, what are my duties in respect of sexual harassment in the workplace?

Employers have a duty under the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 to take reasonable steps to look after the health, safety and welfare of their employees.

They also have a duty of care to look after the wellbeing of their employees, and failure to comply with those duties could result in a breach of an employee’s contract.

Therefore, in the case of sexual harassment, employers should do all that they reasonably can to try to prevent sexual harassment from taking place in the workplace.

Although an individual who sexually harasses another at work is responsible for their own actions, employers could be held responsible too by way of vicarious liability, in particular, if they did not do all that they could to have prevented the harassment from taking place.

Employers may face claims of constructive dismissal, discrimination or civil claims for personal injury and loss if they fail to act accordingly.

What is the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace?

In terms of your employees, if they are subject to sexual harassment in the workplace, this could impact upon their mental and physical health causing stress, depression, anxiety and, in some cases, some physical illnesses or injuries. If an employee is suffering in the workplace, they may feel forced to resign from their role and therefore suffer the loss of their employment.

From an employer’s perspective, sexual harassment in the workplace could lead to staff sickness, absenteeism, effects on productivity or performance, resignations, perhaps a reduction in morale, and damage to your brand or adverse publicity off the back of any such harassment taking place.

It is therefore crucial that employers are aware of what sexual harassment in the workplace is, and that they take steps to reduce the risk accordingly.

So what can I do as an employer to reduce the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace?

  • Have in place clear anti-harassment policies which highlight that you have zero tolerance of any such conduct.
  • Ensure that any such policies are provided to staff and that they are aware of what is expected of them in terms of appropriate conduct in the workplace.
  • Where appropriate, provide training in particular to line managers with regards to what sexual harassment is, set expectations in terms of conduct you have as an employer, and highlight the zero-tolerance culture that you would wish to establish in the workplace.
  • Be aware of situations that might increase the risk of sexual harassment occurring, such as isolated work environments, and be aware of what the warning signs of that conduct may be.
  • Have in place a clear and effective process for investigating allegations as part of your zero-tolerance policy.
  • Ensure that staff know where to go, what to do, and that they feel free to speak up and disclose any such allegations if they are faced either with being subject to, or have witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Ensure that any such reports and allegations are taken seriously and investigated sensitively and accordingly, and then ensure that appropriate action is taken.

With awareness of this issue becoming higher within society as a whole, there is a growing pressure on employers to also reflect this awareness and to help their staff, where possible, to spot the signs of sexual harassment in the workplace, to deal with any such allegations and to take action that reinforces a zero-tolerance culture.

Should you have any concerns about how to reduce the risk of sexual harassment taking place in the workplace, how to protect your employees in the light of such situations occurring, or have any other health and safety queries with regards to your duties as an employer to protect your employees in the face of sexual harassment, please do not hesitate to contact the team at Prettys.

Prettys recently hosted a training webinar on this topic. Should you wish to obtain a recorded copy of that session, please fill in the form below. 

Request the Webinar recording of 'Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (Part 1 and 2)' 

Hosted by Vanessa Bell, Partner and Louise Plant, Senior Associate of the Prettys Employment Law team. 

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Louise Plant
Senior Associate