What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating someone's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Often the person carrying out the harassment will try to say that they were just joking or harmlessly flirting and they didn't intend to cause offence. But this is irrelevant if it has had that effect on you.

The conduct doesn't have to be specifically targeted at you either. For example, you may work in an office where men display 'pin ups' or make sexual comments about women, which you regularly see or overhear. This may create a degrading, intimidating or hostile working environment for you even though none of the men have directly made comments or behaved in a sexual way towards you.

It is also harassment to treat someone less favourably because they have rejected or submitted to unwanted sexual conduct. Here are some examples of behaviour that could constitute sexual harassment:

  • indecent or suggestive remarks
  • questions, jokes, or suggestions about your sex life
  • the display of pornography in the workplace
  • the circulation of pornography (by email, for example)
  • unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing
  • requests or demands for sexual favours
  • any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment.

Sexual harassment could happen in a range of different places:

  • in the workplace
  • in a workplace that you visit for work purposes (for example, a client or patient's home or workplace)
  • on a work trip
  • at a work social event
  • on social media
  • by email
  • by telephone.

The harasser could be your boss, a potential employer, a colleague, another manager, a client, a patient, or a customer. For example, a care worker might be harassed by a client when on a home visit. Or a prospective employer might demand sexual favours of an actor at a casting.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.