Skip to main content

Sexual harassment in the workplace

Guidance on how managers can deal with cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Recently the fast food chain McDonalds signed a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) under section 23 of the Equality Act 2006 in response to concerns about the handling of sexual harassment complaints made by staff in its UK restaurants.

Despite this, over 100 current and former McDonald's staff have recently made fresh allegations about sexual harassment, racism and homophobia following an investigation by the BBC. The new allegations reported by the BBC include:

  • An older female manager forcing a younger worker's hand down her trousers and smacking her bum
  • Managers smoking cannabis and taking cocaine in the offices while at work
  • A manager dealing drugs to employees
  • Punching and other unwanted physical contact, passed off as "banter"
  • Sexual suggestions and comments made by managers to very young staff members, and about them in front of others
  • Name calling, including slurs
  • A manager threatening a staff member with a knife

Sexual harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individuals dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

Acas has provided examples which include:

  • flirting, gesturing or making sexual remarks about someone's body, clothing or appearance
  • asking questions about someone's sex life
  • telling sexually offensive jokes, making sexual comments or jokes about someone's sexual orientation or gender reassignment
  • displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual images, or other sexual content
  • touching someone against their will, for example, hugging them
  • sexual assault or rape

In view of the significant reputational damage that employers are likely to face in dealing with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace it is important to take preventative measures.

We outline these below.

Policies – it is important to have clear, up to date discrimination and harassment policies that all employees have access to and understand. These should include examples of behaviours that are unacceptable and appropriate sanctions if employees are in breach of such policies.

Training – this is extremely important. Managers should be trained in how to implement the policies and all employees should have training on standards of behaviours expected in the workplace which includes zero tolerance to discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Often employers will use online training which can raise awareness and provide examples of unacceptable conduct. Specific and targeting training however, is more effective as this will allow employees to come forward to raise concerns and help foster an open culture. It is important that the training occurs regularly so that it does not become stale.

Dealing with allegations – it is important that investigations into allegations are undertaken without unreasonable delay and in the event the allegations are proven the allegation should be considered to be gross misconduct.

If you would like to be advised on anything relating to sexual harassment in the workplace, please speak to one of our expert employment law solicitors.

Sectors and Services featured in this article