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Definition and Legislation

What is sexual harassment

The Equality Act 2010 (“EqA 2010”) deals with the rights afforded to workers in England, Scotland and Wales only. The Act covers sex discrimination and sexual harassment in a workplace.  

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment occurs where a person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and that conduct has the purpose or effect of either violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you. So, this includes any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which might involve, for example, unwelcome sexual advances, touching and sexual jokes etc.  

Sexual harassment includes sexual comments or jokes, physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching and various forms of sexual assault, displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature and/or sending emails with a sexual content.  

Example

An employer displays a topless calendar above his desk which you find offensive. If he refuses to remove it you could take action, as this counts as sexual harassment under the Equality Act. Many perpetrators hide behind the argument that it is just a “bit of banter”.


When does Sexual Harassment stop being ‘banter’?  

When it has the purpose or effect of violating your dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you. 

Read more in the MU guidance for appropriate behaviour at work.

Who is protected? 

Anyone who is working under a contract to do work personally. This therefore includes employees, workers, apprentices and many self-employed individuals. Ex-employees can also make a claim against a former employer, if they are complaining about something that was closely connected to their employment. 

Who is liable? 

The employer is generally liable for acts of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. However, individual employees may also be liable for their own actions, e.g. if they have subjected a colleague to harassment related to a Protected Characteristic. 

In addition to liability for the acts of employees, an employer may be liable for the acts of third parties (such as customers or contractors). The employer may avoid liability where they can demonstrate that they took reasonably practicable steps to prevent the third party's behaviour. 

Time limits on making a claim

A claim must be brought within 3 months less one day of the day of the unlawful act. In exceptional circumstances the three-month time limit may be extended. Where the discrimination has occurred over a long period of time, this may amount to a continuing act extending over a period. A claim must then be brought within three months less one day of the last act in the series of acts. 

This information has been prepared jointly with the MU and Morrish Solicitors LLP, a law firm that specialises in harassment and discrimination law.
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