UK Sexual Harassment Laws for the Workplace

UK Sexual Harassment Laws For The Workplace

The explosion of #MeToo stories and the conversation around them has shined a light on the sexual harassment women continue to face at work. Many English-speaking nations reevaluated and updated their existing laws to make employers more accountable for allowing workplace sexual harassment to take place.

This article talks about sexual harassment in the workplace in the United Kingdom -- how it is legally defined, how it is, and the best way for UK employers to prevent sexual harassment at their companies.

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What Is Classified As Sexual Harassment In The United Kingdom

In the UK, sexual harassment is considered a type of "sexual violence", an umbrella term encompassing any sexual activity or act that takes place without consent (rape and sexual assault are the other types of "sexual violence").

Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is considered a type of unlawful discrimination.

In accordance with Section 26 of the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is defined as:

"unwanted conduct specifically of a sexual nature or related to gender reassignment and has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or violating his or her dignity."

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Range Of Sexual Behaviour Considered "Sexual Harassment"

"Unwanted conduct of a sexual nature" can be enacted by members of any gender and can take many forms in the workplace, including:

  • sexual comments about someone's body/clothing/appearance, including noises (e.g. whistling, catcalling)
  • uninvited flirting or sexual advances ("friendly" touching and even standing too close can be unwelcome and intimidating in this situation)
  • sexual jokes, double-entendres, innuendoes, and sexually suggestive comments
  • sexual requests or asking for sexual favours
  • lewd sexual gestures
  • suggestive looks or openly leering/"sizing up and down"
  • emailing or texting sexual content/imagery
  • displaying offensive materials in public spaces (e.g. posting sexually explicit or misogynistic comics on the wall of one's cubicle)
  • treating a coworker/underling worse for having previously rejected one's sexual advances (such as passing them over for a promotion out of spite)

When Sexual Harassment Breaks Criminal Law

Some forms of sexual harassment are automatically considered a criminal offence under UK laws, including:

  • indecent exposure
  • "upskirting"
  • stalking
  • any sexual harassment involving psychical contact, which is automatically classified as "sexual assault" in the UK

If criminal sexual harassment takes place, the police can arrest the person who committed the crime, they can go on trial on criminal charges, and those who are found guilty may go to prison.

To convict the assailant for rape or sexual assault, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the victim did not consent to be subjected to such sexual offences, and that the assailant did not have a reasonable belief that consent was granted. The person giving consent could not have been incapacitated by alcohol or drugs. Any minor child under the age of 16 is not considered capable of legally providing consent (therefore, any sexual activity committed upon a minor is considered committed without consent).

Who Is Protected From Sexual Harassment At The Workplace?

A female employee is much more likely to experience sexual harassment than a male employee; however 10-30% of male employees are estimated to fall victim to sexual harassment (and more often than not don't report it for the fear of it not being taken seriously). Whether the sexual harassment is enacted toward female or male coworkers, the perpetrators of sexual harassment tend to be men.

Unwanted sexual behaviour need not be intentionally directed at the victims to make them feel uncomfortable -- it can be any of the above-mentioned sexually inappropriate behaviours the person witnesses or overhears.

According to the Equality Act 2010, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination, and discrimination is unlawful. In England, a discriminatory behaviour is based on generalizations and stereotypes aimed at individuals on the bases of sexism, phobic attitudes toward LGBT+ individuals, and several other social minority statuses.

Protected Characteristics

The relevant "protected characteristics" protected from discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 are:

  • age
  • race
  • a person's sex
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • religion/belief
  • sexual orientation
  • marriage/civil partnership status
  • pregnancy/maternity status

If a victim expresses a negative reaction to the harassment in the workplace (for example files a claim with their employer or takes their complaint to the employment tribunal), it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against the person in any way: in the eyes of the UK law, it will be considered additional "harassment".

UK Sexual Harassment Laws

It is the employer's duty to protect their employees from sexual harassment by coworkers and higher-ups. This means taking all the reasonable steps to prevent harassment -- otherwise, one may be liable if a victim brings a claim against their harasser and the company in civil courts.

UK employers are not initially responsible for the inappropriate behaviour that may be directed at employees by non-employees. For example, if a customer sexually harasses an employee, that's not something the employer could have initially controlled. However -- the employer must take action if a complaint is lodged about such an incident -- or they could still be held legally accountable if the case is brought up before the employment tribunal.

UK Employers' Legal Obligations In Preventing/Handling Sexual Harassment At The Workplace

Under the Equality Act 2010, the employer is under a legal obligation to not discriminate against its employees on the grounds of a protected characteristic -- and "sexual harassment" is considered a form of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender reassignment.

The UK government is additionally working to pass the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bills 2022-2023, drafted on the basis of a formal response to a "consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace" launched by the UK government in 2019.

New worker protection implementations to go into effect soon include:

  • protections for employees harassed by third parties
  • possibly extending the statute of limitations of reporting discrimination cases to the employment tribunal: from 3 to 6 months
  • enabling the Equality and Human Rights Commission (the Parliament-mandated organization in charge of protecting human rights in the UK) to provide requirements and guidelines for employers on how to respond to sexual harassment complaints.

How Employers Can Prevent Harassment

Prevention is the best policy when it comes to workplace sexual harassment.

Employers can nip inappropriate behaviour in the bud by taking several measures, such as:

  • Conducting a risk assessment to determine real risks of sexual harassment within the workforce -- and take according steps to decrease the triggers/conditions that allow for sexual harassment (for example, cut out alcohol from social events).
  • Creating a culture of zero tolerance toward any kind of harassment and discrimination, by making the anti-sexual harassment policies crystal clear to the employees from top to bottom.
  • Training the staff on laws and "do's and don'ts" concerning sexual harassment, while letting them know their rights and protections.

Don't Allow Sexual Harassment To Poison Your Workplace

Those who have never experienced sexual harassment should consider themselves lucky as it's a very widespread phenomenon at the workplace. And, as persons who have been sexually harassed can attest, experiencing sexual harassment comes with a host of adverse effects on a person's psychological wellbeing as well as professional capacity/drive. With sexual harassment, everyone loses -- the employee and the employer.

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The training is fast, informative, mobile-friendly, and covers everything your employees need to know about sexual harassment: from what sexual harassment is (and why it's wrong), to various examples of how it realistically plays out in the workplace, to the protocol on how to safely and properly react to being sexually harassed/witnessing harassment of a colleague.

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Written by: Maria Malyk

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