There has been so much in the press about sexual harassment recently, so let’s just think about what it really means in the workplace.

The definition below often surprises people who attend the Dignity at Work courses that we run, because in everyday language the word harassment is often used in the same way as bullying.  Harassment in law, though, is about behaviour related to the characteristics that it’s also illegal to discriminate against – age, gender, race, religion etc.

The law defines harassment as

unwanted conduct related to relevant protected characteristics

  • which has the purpose of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person; or
  • is reasonably considered by that person to have the effect of violating his/her dignity or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him/her, even if this effect was not intended by the person responsible for the conduct.

As it says, harassment is unwanted and leads to people feeling that their dignity has been violated or it makes them feel intimidated or humiliated.    Harassment in the workplace is illegal and employees don’t have to leave their job to make a claim to an employment tribunal, nor do they need two years’ service before they can make a claim as is the case for unfair dismissal.  It really is, therefore, something that employers need to take very seriously.

Sexual harassment is unwanted conduct which is of a sexual nature.   This can be verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings or sending emails with material of a sexual nature.

Everybody at work has the right to say that behaviour of a sexual nature is unwanted, though of course different people have different views as to what is unwanted – some behaviours are more obviously likely to be considered as harassment than others and what is a compliment to one person can be unwanted by another.

People are often afraid to speak out about the way they feel, maybe they think they will be ridiculed, or not taken seriously, or they may worry that they will be victimised for raising a concern.   And whilst it is illegal to victimise people for making a complaint of harassment and there is even more protection for people who have been subjected to sexual harassment, it doesn’t make it any easier.

With all the attention being paid to the subject, organisations would do well to re-examine their Dignity at Work or Bullying and Harassment policies and make sure that they have carried out sufficient training.   All managers and supervisors need to be aware of the law and should have the confidence to ensure that policies are understood and effective.

Email us at or call 01636 653066 if you would like help with this, if you’d like to know when our next Dignity at Work workshop will be taking place or if you’d like us to come and run some training for your staff.