The #Me Too Movement and recent high profile news stories concerning allegations of sexual harassment, many of them in the work place, has led to a review of the relevant employment policies for many employers.

It is extremely difficult for an individual who experiences sexual harassment and employees are protected from sexual harassment in both employment law and criminal law, dependant on the seriousness of the case. Complaints of sexual harassment should be taken very seriously and if unsure of how to proceed employers should seek advice from an employment law advisor.

Sexual Harassment is defined by the 2010 Equality Act as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”

It can include:

  • sexual comments or jokes
  • physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and other forms of sexual assault
  • displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
  • sending emails with a sexual content

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, male or female, at any level of an organisation and harassment can be by people of the same or opposite sex. In addition, even if the alleged perpetrator didn’t intend it to be, the action can still be considered sexual harassment, based on the effect it has on the victim.

Employment law advisors can assist with writing policy and advise employers who are dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in the work place. In addition ACAS has published new guidance for employers on how to identify and support people who face sexual harassment at work.

Employment policies should give clear guidance regarding the behaviour and actions that are unacceptable and may be considered sexual harassment, Examples should include:-

  • written or verbal comments of a sexual nature, for example offensive jokes, personal remarks about an employee’s appearance, or comments or questions about their sex life.
  • the displaying of explicit, offensive or pornographic images
  • emails containing content of a sexual nature
  • comments of a sexual nature on social media
  • unwanted physical contact and touching
  • sexual assault

The policy should also be clear on how a complaint of sexual harassment can be made. This could be through a grievance or fair treatment procedure but may also include complaints made through the HR team or a local trade union representative.

The police should be informed in serious cases of sexual assault or where physical threats have been made. However it is not usually necessary for employers to wait for the outcome of any criminal proceedings before following a disciplinary procedure, unless this cannot be completed fairly.