Sexual harassment

Steps for employers to prevent sexual harassment

You should take steps to try to make sure sexual harassment does not happen in your workplace.

You should aim to have a culture of zero tolerance of sexual harassment.

You should also:

  • remove or reduce risks of sexual harassment to make sure your workplace is safe
  • offer support to anyone involved in a sexual harassment complaint
  • make it clear to everyone who works for you, or uses your services, that you will not tolerate sexual harassment
  • train everyone who works for you on recognising sexual harassment and encourage them to report it
  • make sure all your policies are consistent in having zero tolerance of sexual harassment

If someone who works for you makes a sexual harassment complaint despite steps you've taken, you should check:

  • why the steps you've taken have not worked
  • if anything needs to change

Put policies and procedures in place

You must follow a full and fair procedure for handling complaints, in line with the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures.

Alternatively, you may want to create a specific sexual harassment policy and procedure, if you think it would be better to handle a complaint this way instead of through a grievance procedure.

If you create a specific sexual harassment policy

If you decide to create a specific sexual harassment policy, you should do this in consultation with either:

  • trade unions
  • other employee representatives, where there's no trade union

What you should include in a specific policy

The following are examples of what you should include if you decide to create your own specific sexual harassment policy.

1. A range of options for reporting a sexual harassment complaint depending on who the person feels most comfortable telling. For example, this could include:

  • their line manager
  • a more senior manager
  • staff who are specially trained to deal with sexual harassment complaints
  • their trade union representative

2. A range of informal options for dealing with a sexual harassment complaint where both you and the person making this complaint think this is appropriate. For example, this might include:

  • the person making the complaint telling the person they're complaining about why their unwanted behaviour must stop, and getting an apology and assurance from them that they will never do it again (this should only happen if the person making the complaint feels comfortable doing this and has support, for example they're accompanied when they tell the person)

3. A formal procedure specifically for dealing with sexual harassment complaints, to be used either:

  • when one of the informal options for dealing with a complaint does not work
  • when a formal complaint is made from the start

4. The formal procedure should allow:

  • both the person who made the complaint and the person they're complaining about to be accompanied by a trade union representative or a colleague throughout the procedure, if they make a reasonable request
  • both the person who made the complaint and the person they're complaining about to ask for advice from someone at work who's specially trained to deal with sexual harassment complaints
  • a right of appeal against a decision after the complaint has been investigated and all the evidence has been heard at a hearing

5. The formal procedure should be clear on the process for when disciplinary action might be needed. Either:

  • the formal procedure includes its own disciplinary process
  • you use your overall staff disciplinary procedure

6. That one investigation should be used for both looking into the complaint and any follow-up disciplinary procedure. But if you feel you need more information for a disciplinary procedure, you should investigate again.

7. Details of help and support for the person who's made the complaint and the person they're complaining about. For example:

  • support available through work, for example an employee assistance programme (EAP) if you have one
  • outside sources of support, for example specialist helplines

8. That someone who works for you who's been sexually harassed will be given paid time off to get help with any resulting physical or mental health problems.

Make sure other policies are in line

It's important that all your policies match up. You should check all relevant policies, including:

  • discipline
  • social media
  • dress code
  • data protection (GDPR)

For example, your social media policy should also make it clear there is zero tolerance of sexual harassment at work, including on personal devices.

Check policies are working

You should regularly check if policies and procedures for preventing sexual harassment and handling complaints are working or if they need to change. For example, you could do staff surveys.

Train staff

This includes:

  • training everyone who works for you on recognising and understanding sexual harassment – ideally within their first month
  • training someone in HR, or a manager or another member of staff, to advise people who are considering making a sexual harassment complaint

Acas training for employers and managers includes:

Assess the risk

It can help to assess the risk of sexual harassment in your organisation because of what's involved in the work your staff do.

For example, factors might include:

  • lone working
  • the presence of alcohol
  • power imbalances between staff

If you can, try to remove or reduce those risks.

Create a culture of zero tolerance

As an employer, you should make these things clear to everyone who works for you:

  • sexual harassment is against the law
  • what sexual harassment is and what behaviours are unacceptable at work
  • you will never cover up or ignore a sexual harassment complaint
  • you will not tolerate misuse of power in workplace relationships, for example through seniority or influence
  • how you will handle a sexual harassment complaint
  • that staff are encouraged to report sexual harassment early
  • if someone who works for you carries out sexual harassment, it may lead to them losing their job
  • a member of staff who makes a complaint that's not upheld will not face any disciplinary action, as long as their complaint was not malicious

These are other steps you can take to help create a zero tolerance culture. For example:

  • putting a system in place where staff can report sexual harassment complaints online or by phone, including anonymously
  • carrying out anonymous surveys so staff can say if they've experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, if they reported it or not and why
  • including in managers' performance objectives that they should report sexual harassment if they see it, or deal with it if they're trained to
  • keeping a record of sexual harassment complaints to watch for any patterns of unwanted behaviour

Improve equality, diversity and inclusion

Sexual harassment can be less likely to happen in a workplace that encourages equality, diversity and inclusion, for example when there’s a range of people from different backgrounds.

Find out more about improving equality, diversity and inclusion at work.

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