Acas guidance on sexual harassment

Acas has published guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace, in the wake of a number of recent high-profile allegations of harassment involving public figures.

In a recent ComRes survey, commissioned by Radio 5 Live, 20% of men and 53% of women said they have experienced some form of harassment in the workplace or a place of study. 45% of those aged 18 – 34 said they had experienced sexual harassment. Two thirds of people who have been harassed in the workplace or place of study said they did not report this to anyone.

Key points from the Acas guidance

  • The guidance covers a number of key areas, including what sexual harassment is; what workers should do if they wish to make a complaint; and how employers should deal with complaints.
  • Sexual harassment is “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature”. The examples set out in the guidance include:
    • physical contact or touching;
    • written or verbal comments, such as remarks about a colleague's appearance, questions about their sex life or offensive jokes;
    • displaying pornographic or explicit images;
    • sending or forwarding emails that contain content of a sexual nature.
  • importantly, the guidance reminds us that even if the person accused of sexual harassment did not intend their actions to cause offence or humiliation, it could still amount to harassment, if their actions have that effect. Also, the conduct does not have to be directed at a specific person. 
  • Sexual harassment can happen to men or women, and workers can be sexually harassed by people of the same sex or the opposite sex. A worker could be harassed by a colleague, or by a customer or someone else they come into contact with during their work. 
  • As well as being an employment law issue, there can also be criminal repercussions.

What should employers do?

  • Employers should familiarise themselves with the Acas guidance. 
  • The consequences of getting it wrong when faced with an allegation of sexual harassment include industrial relations issues; negative publicity; and the risk of an Employment Tribunal claim and a large award of compensation. 
  • Employers should have a written policy, setting out the standards of behaviour expected from staff, and the type conduct which is not acceptable in the workplace. This policy should be monitored. 
  • Employers should also have a procedure for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment.
  • It will be obvious that certain types of conduct, for example unwanted physical contact, amount to sexual harassment, but employers should also be aware of what might be less obvious conduct, such as “banter” in the workplace, which may “cross the line”. 
  • Sexual harassment could also take place outside the office, for example at a work party, so employers should be vigilant, and make sure staff are aware that these types of events are an extension of the workplace, so the usual standards of behaviour apply. 
  • Employers should recognise that it can be difficult and upsetting for workers to speak up about sexual harassment, particularly where the person accused is their superior or in position of influence. 
  • Allegations of sexual harassment should be taken seriously, and should be dealt with sensitively and fairly.
Jonathan Royle, Employment Senior Associate

Jonathan Royle

Senior Associate