Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace was not specifically legislated against until 2005 when a new section was added to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, now the Equality Act 2010.

This new section ensures that no one is subjected to unwanted sexual conduct in the workplace, whether this is verbal, non-verbal or physical. In the Equality Act, this conduct is defined as sexual harassment if, based on a person's sex, it:

  • Violates dignity.
  • Creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
  • Results in less favourable treatment on the grounds of rejecting this conduct.

The Equality Act also includes a provision that covers sexual harassment in the workplace, which protects people from being harassed on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

Examples of unacceptable behaviour could include:

  • Unwelcome comments of a sexual nature
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Unnecessary touching or unwanted physical contact
  • Leering at someone's body
  • Displaying offensive material such as posters
  • Sending offensive emails. This includes colleagues downloading pornographic emails, even if they aren't sent to you personally.
  • Insensitive jokes.

The law against sexual harassment protects you from your employer, colleagues and from third parties such as clients or customers. Sexual harassment could be a one-off incident or a series of events, and it could be deliberate, or unintended.

Employment tribunals treat it very seriously and awards in sexual harassment cases can be very high. It is also a potentially imprisonable offence. 

Making a Claim for Sexual Harassment

Under the Equality Act for sexual harassment, there is no minimum period of employment necessary for you to be eligible to make a claim, but there are strict rules on when a discrimination claim needs to be filed by.

The general position is three months (less a day) from the act of discrimination or from the last act if the discrimination is ongoing.  Within this time your need to commence Early Conciliation through ACAS, you will be unable to file a claim at employment tribunal until you have completed Early Conciliation and have an Early Conciliation Certificate.  

Early conciliation presses pause on the limitation clock.  However, the rules in relation to the time limits can be complicated and it is recommended that you take early legal advice on the subject and avoid leaving it until the last minute. 

Before bringing a claim it is advisable to raise a grievance with your manager  (or someone more senior if it is your manager who is harassing you) or HR, in the first instance to see whether the issue can be resolved internally.

If you believe that you are being sexually harassed, or you simply want more information about your rights, Ashby Cohen can help.

Please contact us for an initial free consultation.