Sexual harassment

Handling a sexual harassment complaint

As an employer, you should:

  • take any complaint of sexual harassment very seriously
  • handle it fairly and sensitively

The employee or worker making the complaint may start by talking to you to try and resolve the problem.

If they do not feel comfortable doing this or the issue is particularly serious, they can raise a formal grievance. You will need to follow a full and fair grievance procedure.

The complaint might come from:

  • the person who's experienced sexual harassment
  • someone who's witnessed it

It's important to remember that sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.

You should not let your own views influence a situation or dismiss a concern. For example, behaviour you personally do not find offensive or unwanted might have a very different effect on someone else.

What you must do as an employer

You must follow a full and fair procedure in line with your existing policies and procedures and the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

The procedure you've followed will be taken into account if the case reaches an employment tribunal.

Sexual harassment complaints will be considered at an employment tribunal if the employee tells Acas within 3 months of the incident.

A complaint may be considered at an employment tribunal if the tribunal decides there's a good reason for taking more than 3 months to tell Acas.

If the complaint has been made a long time after the incident took place, you must still take it very seriously.

You should not ignore or cover up a sexual harassment complaint.

Non-disclosure agreements

You should not use a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) or 'confidentiality clause' to stop someone reporting sexual harassment.

You cannot use an NDA to stop someone 'whistleblowing'.

When it's a crime

If someone has been sexually assaulted or raped, they should report it to the police.

If they do not want to tell the police, you should still encourage them to do so. You might still need to report it but should always tell the person affected if you're going to do this.

If the incident has been reported to the police or it's going through a court, you must still investigate the complaint. You can carry out a disciplinary procedure without waiting for the court outcome, as long as this can be done fairly.

Supporting someone who's made a complaint

Being sexually harassed is extremely distressing and can be life-changing.

You should make sure that:

  • reporting it is as easy as possible
  • the person who's experienced it feels safe and protected

This could include making sure you meet the person in a private place and allowing plenty of time to talk about it.

If there's a grievance hearing, you must allow the employee or worker to be accompanied by someone they work with or a trade union representative.

Sometimes it can help them to bring a friend or family member. It's up to you to decide what's appropriate in the circumstances, or it might be set out in their contract's written terms or in an employee handbook or policy.

Supporting someone who's been accused

It's likely to be very distressing for an employee to be accused of sexual harassment.

You must carry out a fair and thorough investigation and you should also offer support and sensitivity to the person accused.

This usually involves the same kind of things you would do to support someone who's made a complaint. For example, allowing plenty of time to talk about it and allowing them to be accompanied if there's a disciplinary hearing.

Creating or updating sexual harassment policies

You should:

  • regularly review your workplace sexual harassment policies and procedures
  • make a sexual harassment policy if you do not have one

Acas can help with more complex sexual harassment matters, including how to create or update a sexual harassment policy. Call 0300 123 1150, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

You can also do Acas training on dealing with unacceptable behaviours at work.

Find out more about sexual harassment in the workplace from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).