Sexual harassment: your rights

The legal definition of sexual harassment changed on 1 October 2005. The definition that applies depends on when the sexual harassment you are complaining about took place.

Some incidents of sexual harassment are serious enough to be criminal offences or civil claims for assault.  In these cases you should report the harassment immediately to the police. You should also get independent advice from a lawyer specialising in criminal proceedings.

If you feel unable to go to the police , you can ask advice from:

If you have been subjected to harassment outside the workplace including abusive telephone calls and/or threatening correspondence, you may also be able to take a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act. You should get independent specialist advice from a lawyer on this.

If you feel you have been sacked or forced to resign from your job as a result of harassment, you may also have a claim for unfair dismissal.

Remember, harassment is not your fault. You do not have to put up with it.

For incidents that took place on or after 1 October 2005

There are two types of sexual harassment:

Unwanted conduct on the grounds of your sex

You must be able to show that the treatment is because you are a woman (or a man). An example of this could be if you are being bullied at work and the harasser would not treat somebody of the opposite sex in this way. The conduct does not have to be of a sexual nature for this form of harassment.

The conduct must be done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you.

Unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature

If the conduct is of a sexual nature, this is unlawful in itself and you do not have to compare yourself to how somebody of the opposite sex would be treated. This could include:

  • Comments about the way you look which you find demeaning
  • Indecent remarks
  • Questions about your sex life
  • Sexual demands by a member of your own or the opposite sex

Incidents involving touching and other physical threats are criminal offences and should also be reported to the police.

Again, the conduct must be done with the purpose of, or have the effect of, violating your dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you. 

You will also have a claim for harassment if your employer treats you less favourably because you have rejected, or submitted to, either form of harassment described above.

For incidents that took place before 1 October 2005

Before 1 October 2005 sexual harassment was an unlawful form of direct sex discrimination but was not specifically defined in the Sex Discrimination Act. Cases in the employment tribunals established that sexual harassment was unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature and could include:

  • Comments about the way you look which you find demeaning
  • Indecent remarks
  • Questions about your sex life
  • Sexual demands by a member of your own or the opposite sex

If you wish to take a claim of sexual harassment based on harassment which occurred before 1 October 2005, you will be taking a claim of 'direct sex discrimination' which means that you would have to show that somebody of the opposite sex would not have been treated in this way. In complaints of sexual harassment this is normally taken for granted by the employment tribunal.

The Sex Discrimination Act applies not only in circumstances where you are a company employee but also to a wide range of other employment situations. These include if you are

  • working in a partnership
  • a member of a trade union
  • a member of a professional body
  • a member of an institution which issues qualifications which are required to carry out
  • a particular trade or profession

The Sex Discrimination Act applies regardless of length of service or number of hours worked and to a number of employment situations, including the recruitment process.

Ex-employees are protected by the Sex Discrimination Act in some circumstances.

You can only take a claim of sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act if the sexual harassment you are complaining of took place in work or at a work related function. This means that the harassment has to happen during what is known as 'the course of employment'.

Depending on the facts of your case, you may be able to claim under other legislation in addition to the Sex Discrimination Act.

If you think you have experienced sexual harassment at work, read Using your rights for more information on how to make a claim.

Last Updated: 04 Feb 2014