Policy briefing

Acas guidance on sexual harassment in the workplace

Acas has produced new guidance on recognising sexual harassment in the workplace and the steps that victims and employers should take

Acas has produced new guidance on recognising sexual harassment in the workplace and the steps that victims and employers should take

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Essential facts

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct of a sexual nature. A number of high-profile cases in the media, in which the alleged perpetrators include Hollywood personalities and Westminster politicians, has led to an increased awareness of the problem.

It can happen anywhere, including the workplace. It violates the dignity of a worker or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

A global review of 136 studies published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies in 2014 found that a quarter of nurses had experienced sexual harassment.

What’s new

Recognising sexual harassment and the steps that victims can take is the subject of new guidance from workplace experts the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).

The recent spotlight on abuse and harassment has led to a focus on workplace practices, Acas says. The guidance sets out what workplace behaviours could be considered sexual harassment, how to report it and the response that can be expected from employers.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can happen in any number of ways, including:

  • Written or verbal comments of a sexual nature, such as remarks about an employee's appearance or their sex life, or offensive jokes.
  • Displaying pornographic or explicit images.
  • Emails with content of a sexual nature.
  • Unwanted physical contact and touching.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Sexual assault and physical threats.

Some types of sexual harassment, such as sexual assault and other physical threats, are a criminal matter as well as an employment issue, and should be reported to the police.

Call 999 if anyone is in immediate danger or a crime is in progress. Call 101 to contact the police if the crime is not an emergency. If a complaint is reported to the police, or criminal proceedings are being pursued, an employer must still investigate the complaint as an employment matter.

RCN advice to nurses

  • The RCN recommends talking informally to friends, family, trusted colleagues or a workplace counsellor. This is one way to gain an understanding of what is happening. Nurses may also need to complete an incident form if the situation relates to a patient or a patient’s relative.
  • Keep a diary and write down details as soon as possible after the event, including dates, times, places, a clear description of what took place, names of any witnesses and whether or not you took any action.
  • It can be effective to tell the person to stop and explain that they are causing distress, the RCN says. Their behaviour may be unintentional and they may stop if they are made aware of the effect it is having. Take a calm but firm approach and make a note of everything that is said, either at the time or immediately afterwards.
  • The Samaritans can provide emotional support for workers who are struggling to cope and need somebody to listen to them.
  • Always dial 999 if someone is in immediate danger or a crime is ongoing.

Who can it happen to?

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone at any time, in any place. It can happen to men or women, and harassment can come from a member of either sex. Perpetrators can be colleagues or people who nurses come into contact with, such as patients and their families.

Historic allegations

Complaints of sexual harassment will usually only be considered by an employment tribunal if the worker makes a claim within three months. But employers should take seriously allegations that are reported at a later date. They should handle things in a way that is sensitive and fair to all concerned.

Making a complaint of sexual harassment

Any worker who feels they are a victim or a witness of sexual harassment can make a complaint. Check the organisation’s policies to see who the complaint should be addressed to. Many organisations will suggest writing a grievance letter to appropriate managers, but there may also be a contact in human resources, a ‘fair treatment’ contact, or a local trade union representative.

Workers are usually expected to try to resolve the problem in the workplace first. If that doesn't work, they need to contact the Acas Helpline before going to an employment tribunal.

Handling a complaint of sexual harassment

All complaints of sexual harassment should be taken seriously and handled fairly and sensitively. Employers should make sure there is plenty of time to discuss the matter and a private space to meet.

The worker has the right to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative at a grievance meeting involving allegations of sexual harassment.

It is also likely to be very distressing for a worker to be accused of sexual harassment. While a fair and thorough investigation will need to be carried out, accused workers should also be offered support and treated sensitively.

Expert comment

Julie Dennis, head of diversity at Acas

‘Many people are unclear about the full range of behaviour that is considered sexual harassment and are not aware that they are legally protected from it. We recommend that people take notes on behaviour they consider unacceptable. It is important that this includes how it makes them feel, as the law is concerned with the impact the behaviour has, as well as the intent of the behaviour.

‘Every good employer should be educating its staff on what sexual harassment is, making clear that this behaviour is not acceptable, and letting staff know what its policy is and how to report cases. Employers should also know that they have a duty of care to those who are being accused of sexual harassment as well as those who make the accusation, and it is important they look after both parties and give them full support.

‘It is often best, if possible, to begin with an informal conversation between the accused and the victim, if they feel comfortable about doing so, as that can often resolve the issue. In some cases it can just be about telling the accused that their behaviour is not acceptable, and they will apologise and agree not to behave that way again.’


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