Tackling workplace sexual harassment

12 January 2018

This article was featured in the February 2018 issue of the magazine.

Danny Done, managing director at Portfolio Payroll, outlines what employers should do

At the end of 2017, the spotlight was focused on addressing sexual harassment at work. This was contributed to by the many allegations of sexual harassment stemming from Hollywood and was also encouraged by the #MeToo movement which garnered worldwide support. Employers should now be aware of the importance of tackling this issue to ensure sexual harassment is not taking place in their business. 

The first stage to tackling this issue is to understand what behaviour will be classed as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment will occur when a person is subjected to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or conduct related to the protected characteristic of sex, that violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It can also occur when a person has submitted to, or rejected, unwanted conduct of a sexual nature (for example, where an individual is demoted after refusing the sexual advances of their boss). 

Although sexual harassment may take place as a campaign of behaviour, it can also occur as a one-off incident so long as the conduct creates the required environment and it was reasonable to do so. This is also the case where a person who overhears or witnesses the behaviour feels intimidated or degraded as they can claim sexual harassment even though they weren’t the intended recipient. 

To ensure clarity for employers, managers, employees and contractors, the organisation’s rules about sexual harassment at work should be clearly set out. The easiest way to do this is to create an anti-harassment policy that can be stored internally within the intranet or in the employee handbook. Using the policy to explain what sexual harassment is and how it can occur at work will help increase understanding. A list of the types of behaviour that could constitute harassment can also be included, although this should make clear it is not an exhaustive list. The consequences of carrying out sexual harassment should also be set out in the policy, acting as a deterrent and supporting future disciplinary action. 

...consequences of carrying out sexual harassment should also be set out in the policy...


Businesses should carry out sexual harassment training to all members of staff, either as an individual session or as part of equality and careless talk training. Training can be scheduled to take place during the induction process to clarify the organisation’s rules at the beginning of employment. In addition, reminders or retraining sessions can be carried out periodically to reinforce the organisation’s stance, especially where there have been internal allegations or concerns raised. 

Additional training can take place for managers. These sessions could cover how to identify issues of sexual harassment at work, how to handle any complaints received and how to make decisions without taking in to account factors influenced by sexual harassment. It is essential that management are embracing a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment so they can lead by example. It will often be the managers who set the perception of this issue within the business, so it’s vital they are properly trained and are communicating how seriously the organisation will view incidents of sexual harassment. 

Once any complaints or concerns about sexual harassment are raised, employers should carry out a full and thorough investigation in to the matter. This will include interviewing any witnesses, taking witness statements and collecting any documentary or visual evidence (such as any CCTV recordings) of the incident. Following the investigation, disciplinary action can be taken against the perpetrator under the organisation’s harassment policy. 

One of the most worrying aspects for employers following the recent harassment allegations will be the culture of silence around sexual harassment. Those who were subjected to incidents felt unable to raise their concerns whilst others who witnessed incidents also failed to come forward. Employers will need to take positive, proactive action to combat this culture within the workplace to ensure matters can be addressed as they arise. The first step to doing so is to take each and every concern seriously. Employers should not undermine or ignore any complaints based on their own understanding or perception of the incident. Instead, a full process should be carried out once a harassment disclosure is made and appropriate formal sanctions should be imposed. 

In addition, employers can consider how they will combat the reluctance of employees to raise concerns to their line manager or employer. In some cases, junior employees will be subjected to sexual harassment by their direct supervisor or senior so it will be inappropriate to require them to raise their complaints to this individual. Instead, the anti-harassment policy can identify an allocated person either in senior management or within the human resources team to make the disclosure to. Removing any uncertainty about the person to raise concerns to will encourage employees to come forward. The allocated person can also receive extra training on handling these conversations and processing them under the harassment policy.