Advice and representation for individuals
Facing Allegations of Sexual Harassment at Work
Sexual harassment in the workplace takes place where a person engages in conduct of a sexual nature which is unwanted and has the purpose or effect of violating another person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. It does not matter if the perpetrator did not intend to make the victim feel harassed.
Sexual harassment can take many forms, including:
- sexual comments or jokes;
- displaying sexually graphic pictures, posters or photos;
- suggestive looks, staring or leering;
- propositions and sexual advances;
- making promises in return for sexual favours;
- sexual gestures;
- intrusive questions about a person’s private or sex life or a person discussing their own sex life;
- sexual posts or contact on social media;
- spreading sexual rumours about a person;
- sending sexually explicit emails or text messages, and
- unwelcome touching, hugging, massaging or kissing.
A one-off incident can amount to sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment must be “of a sexual nature”. It is distinct from harassment related to sex, which is also unlawful.
How are people protected against sexual harassment at work?
Employees are protected against sexual harassment at work under the Equality Act 2010. Simply, this means that employees have the right not to be sexually harassed at work.
Employees also have the right not to be treated unfavourably at work because they have either rejected or submitted to sexual harassment.
Does the act of sexual harassment need to take place at work?
Claims for sexual harassment can be brought in the Employment Tribunal against the person accused of sexual harassment. Claims can also be brought against the employer, although the employer can avoid liability if they have taken “reasonable steps” to prevent harassment. There are other claims available to employees who have been sexually harassed at work.
Sexual harassment does not have to take place in the workplace itself. It could take place outside the workplace and/or outside of working hours at work-related events. For example, sexual harassment which takes place at a client’s office or at a work party may still amount to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment may even occur virtually (such as over Zoom). An employer’s duties to its employees extends to all work-related situations and environments.
Does an accuser need evidence of sexual harassment at work?
An accuser does not necessarily need corroborating evidence in order to report sexual harassment at work. Given the nature of sexual harassment, an accuser’s account of what happened might be the only evidence available. In such circumstances, it is likely that the employer (and the Employment Tribunal in any subsequent proceedings) will need to weigh up the accuser’s account against the accused’s account and decide who, on the balance of probabilities, is telling the truth.
If you are accused of sexual harassment, it is helpful if you can collect any additional evidence to support your version of events. This might include notes to yourself or others at the time of the alleged harassment, text or WhatsApp messages and emails.
Is sexual harassment at work a criminal offence?
Some acts of sexual harassment at work may also amount to a criminal offence (for example, an act of sexual touching will usually amount to a sexual assault). Such acts may lead to a criminal investigation by the police and prosecution in a criminal court.
If you have been accused, or think you may be accused, of committing a criminal offence you should speak to a criminal lawyer. If you instruct us, we can help you obtain specialist criminal law advice.
What will happen to me after I have been accused of sexual harassment at work?
If you are accused of sexual harassment your employer may suspend you while the allegations are investigated. Your employer should carry out a fair investigation, including interviewing you and any witnesses and collating any relevant evidence. If, after a reasonable investigation, your employer concludes that the allegations have merit, you are likely to face disciplinary action.
The outcome of a disciplinary process may be that no action is taken, or could result in you facing disciplinary sanctions, ranging from a written warning up to summary dismissal. You should have a chance to appeal against the outcome of any disciplinary process.
If there is a suspected criminal offence this may change the way the employer’s process operates. For example, the process may be postponed so as not to prejudice a criminal investigation, or your employer make take evidence from you under caution.
The individual making allegations of sexual harassment has the right to bring a claim directly against you for sexual harassment in the Employment Tribunal by naming you as an individual respondent. Such claims are usually heard in public, though you may, in some circumstances, be able to obtain a privacy order to keep your identity private if you face potential reputational harm as a result of the case.
If you are a regulated person, such as someone who is required to be certified as “fit and proper” by the FCA or PRA annually, or a solicitor regulated by the SRA, your employer may need to report their concerns or findings to its regulator. Such a report may impact your regulatory status and your ability to continue working in a regulated role. As such, if you are a regulated person, complaints of this kind can have long-term and serious consequences and advice should be sought at an early stage so that steps can be taken to limit any damage.
What should you do if you consider that you have been wrongly accused of sexual harassment at work?
First and foremost, it is important to be honest. Remember, even if you had no intention to sexually harass someone and even if the person accusing you did not object at the time, your actions could still constitute sexual harassment.
Given the potential reputational and career damage you should consider seeking specialist legal support at an early stage. We regularly advise individuals on defending sexual harassment allegations. We can help you navigate the investigation process and prepare your defence to any disciplinary proceedings. If the allegations against you are untrue or vexatious there are various options open to you, such as making a formal complaint to your employer.
There may also be mitigating circumstances and we can help you tell your side of the story. It is especially important to put your case properly as the potential career and reputational repercussions of sexual harassment findings can be far reaching.
You must not retaliate against the person who has made accusations against you. If you do, you may face a separate claim for “victimisation”, even if the allegation of sexual harassment against you is not upheld.
What can you do if you consider that you have been unfairly disciplined or dismissed for sexual harassment?
Facing untrue or unfair allegations of sexual harassment may have serious implications for your career and reputation. We can help you protect your position, provide you with advice on your options and help you tell your side of the story.
If you consider that you have been unfairly disciplined or dismissed, you should appeal the decision. Your employer will normally ask you to submit your appeal within a short period of time, so it is important that you check any deadlines in your disciplinary or dismissal letter and/or your employer’s disciplinary policy.
You may have a claim against your employer. If your employer failed to follow a fair investigation or disciplinary process, this will form part of any claim. There are short time limits for employment claims. Most need to be brought within three months of the matter complained of and, therefore, you should seek legal advice on time limits as soon as possible.
What sort of compensation is awarded in Employment Tribunal claims?
There is no limit to the compensation the Employment Tribunal can award a person who succeeds in a claim for sexual harassment. Compensation is usually based on any financial losses as well as injury to feelings and in some cases personal injury or aggravated damages.
If you are considering bringing a claim against your employer for dismissing you in connection with sexual harassment allegations, generally speaking, compensation will be based on your financial losses. However, depending on the type of claim you have, the compensation you may be awarded for a successful claim could be capped.
How can BDBF assist me if I have been accused of sexual harassment at work?
Our team of employment lawyers are specialists in advising individuals accused of sexual harassment. We act for senior employees and partners from sectors such as finance, insurance, law, healthcare and technology. We are experts in advising individuals accused of sexual harassment. We can:
- help you defend disciplinary allegations of sexual harassment at work;
- advise you on any sexual harassment claims brought against you in the Employment Tribunal;
- advise you on any claims that you have against your employer in the event that you are disciplined or dismissed;
- if you work in a regulated sector and the matter is reported to your regulator, make representations to the regulator on your behalf; and
- work with our preferred criminal law firm to obtain criminal law advice for you in a seamless way.
By instructing us, you can be confident that we have the knowledge, experience, and insight to protect your best interests. Our team of specialist lawyers have extensive experience of advising employees and partners in this situation and understand the sensitivity and support required. We understand how stressful it can be to face such accusations and we will work with you to achieve the best possible result.