Our expert Employment lawyers address common questions from Employees about Sexual Harassment in the workplace
Workers can be sexually harassed by people of the same sex or the opposite sex.
Sexual harassment can be carried out by anyone, including:
Whilst friendly banter can help to build relationships at work, it can be difficult to judge where the line is between banter and unwanted conduct. The fact you have put up with conduct for years does not mean that it cannot be unwanted.
In a laddish environment where there is a culture of sexual banter, a female employee may feel compelled to join in, and not take offence, at language and conduct that they otherwise would find demeaning. The fact that you initiated banter as a coping strategy does not mean that the banter was wanted conduct.
Unwanted conduct can take many forms, including:
Any employee who feels they have been sexually harassed, or any worker who has witnessed an incident of sexual harassment, can lodge a formal complaint/grievance with their employer.
Your employer should have an Equal Opportunities / Sexual Harassment policy, which should include information on how to bring a complaint of sexual harassment at work.
You may have grounds to bring a legal claim of sexual harassment against the person responsible. It is advisable to seek legal advice as to what steps to take and the time limits for doing so.
If you witness someone being sexually harassed at work, you could step in to stop it happening if you feel it’s safe to do so. After the incident you should support a complaint made by the person who experienced the sexual harassment.
If the individual does not wish to report the incident, you can still raise a complaint yourself without the permission of the person who has been sexually harassed. You should support any investigation into the complaint and provide evidence as a witness. For example at an investigatory hearing.
You can also make a sexual harassment complaint yourself if what you have witnessed has violated your dignity or created an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you.
It will be helpful to make a note of what happened, including the names of the individuals involved, dates, time of the incident and the names of any other witnesses. If you do not want to be named as a witness, you can ask to give a witness statement anonymously.
Behaviour can still be considered sexual harassment even if the alleged harasser did not intend for it to be. It also doesn’t have to be intentionally directed at a specific person.
Some forms of sexual harassment, including sexual assault and the making of physical threats, are a criminal matter as well as being an employment issue. Criminal matters can be reported to the police, although an employer still has a duty to investigate the complaint as an employment matter once it has been reported.
Your employer should initiate an immediate full and fair investigation and treat you with empathy and respect. They should ask you to be specific about the dates and everything that happened. If your employer is unwilling to take your complaint seriously, you should raise a formal grievance.
This will mean that they have to arrange a meeting where someone more senior than the alleged perpetrator will listen to your grievances. They have to respond in writing as to whether they uphold your grievances or not. You have the right to be accompanied and the right to appeal any decision.
Your employer may act on their investigation and proceed to discipline the alleged perpetrator based on your statement of events.
If you are treated badly or less favourably as a result of reporting sexual harassment, whether this is by the person who harassed you or another employee, this is called victimisation. This is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. You should raise a formal grievance or add this to your existing grievances so that this can be investigated.
To bring a claim of sexual harassment you have three months minus one day from the date of the act to which the claim relates to enter your case to ACAS Early Conciliation. ACAS is an independent impartial organisation which can help to liaise between you and your employer in an employment dispute.
To tell ACAS about the dispute you can either call ACAS on 0300 123 1122 or complete their online form: https://tell.acas.org.uk/
Early Conciliation is mandatory before a claim can be made to the Employment Tribunal. Participating in Early Conciliation will ‘stop the clock’ on the time limits and will start again once you receive an Early Conciliation certificate. During the Early Conciliation, ACAS will attempt to contact your employer to see if they are willing to participate in Early Conciliation.
If ACAS are unable to contact your employer or your employer has indicated to them that they are not interested in attempting to settle, ACAS will discharge an Early Conciliation Certificate to you.
If your employer is willing to engage in the Early Conciliation process, ACAS will try to help the parties reach a settlement. This period will last six weeks. If at any point during the Early Conciliation period ACAS considers settlement of the dispute is not possible, ACAS will issue an Early Conciliation Certificate.
It is important that you submit your claim to the Employment Tribunal within one month from when you receive the Early Conciliation Certificate.
If you do not make a claim within the time limits, you may still be able to make a claim as the time limits can be extended by the Employment Tribunal if it is just and equitable to do so.
If there have been multiple incidents of sexual harassment over a period (‘continuing acts’) rather than a single incident, they are treated as having occurred at the end of that period. Time does not therefore start to run until the last act of sexual harassment which is when the time limits for entering your case for Early Conciliation will begin.
If you have been accused of sexual harassment, you should seek expert legal advice as soon as possible. Facing allegations of sexual harassment may have serious implications for your reputation and career.
Your employer may suspend you while they investigate the allegations. As part of their investigation, your employer is likely to want to interview you and any witnesses. It is important to be honest and remember that even if you had no intention to sexually harass someone, your actions could still constitute sexual harassment.
It is better to accept that your behaviour is sexual harassment and to apologise and to agree to go on equality and diversity training than to insist on your innocence or lack of intention.
If the allegations against you are untrue or vexatious, you can make a formal complaint to your employer.
Even if you believe the allegations made against you are untrue, you must not retaliate against the person who has made the accusations. If you did, you could face a claim for victimisation, even if the allegation against you are not upheld.
Our team of specialist employment solicitors can help guide and advise you through the process. Our solicitors have extensive experience of advising employees accused of sexual harassment.
Martin Searle Solicitors is the trading name of ms solicitors ltd, which is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, and is registered in England under company number 05067303.© 2023