Advice line - Sexual harassment

Saraka Keating unravels what is meant by the term sexual harassment and what you can do to counter it

Harassment constitutes one of the main forms of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. (This applies to England, Scotland and Wales; Northern Ireland has its own equality legislation).


Three grounds constitute sexual harassment under the Act:

  • subjecting an individual to unwanted conduct relating to their sex that has the purpose or effect of violating their dignity or creating an intimidating,
  • hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment
  • engaging in unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment
  • treating someone less favourably because he or she rejected the unwanted conduct

Examples of harassing behaviour include unwanted physical touching or sexual comments, personal comments about a someone’s appearance, and non-verbal harassment, such as unwanted gestures of displays of pornographic pictures.

A single incident can constitute harassment if it is of sufficient seriousness.

Women are more likely to be at the receiving end of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Some negative workplace cultures are characterised by a high level of ‘banter’, which, if it is of a sexist or sexual nature, can cause offence.

While it’s important to enjoy work and share a joke with colleagues, you need to think about how others may perceive what you are saying.

When deciding if there has been harassment, whether someone intended to cause offence when they told the joke is less important than how it’s likely to be perceived, particularly by the person it was aimed at.

Don’t expect them always to say when they’ve been offended either – victims of harassment often don’t feel confident enough to challenge it, especially when there’s a big group of people laughing along, so they may pretend to share the joke as a way of coping.

Cases should be reported: your manager must ensure that staff are treated equally and not subjected to discrimination or harassment.Visit Harassment in the workplace

Saraka Keating is a CSP national officer (equalities)

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Saraka Keating

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