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Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Our recommendations

Our research has highlighted the extent of sexual harassment LGBT workers face, the barriers they experience in reporting it and the significant impact it has on their lives.

Existing legal protections and workplace initiatives are not addressing the scale and seriousness of this issue. Additional legal protections and new ways of tackling sexual harassment are needed and if they are to be successful, they must be designed to include the specific experiences of LGBT people.


The government must take steps to ensure LGBT workers are effectively protected from sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.

Our research has shown that most LGBT workers who’ve been sexually harassed don’t report it to their employers. LGBT workers face specific additional barriers in reporting sexual harassment, with the fear of ‘outing’ themselves preventing 25 per cent of those who didn’t report being sexually harassed from coming forward. We can’t therefore rely on reactive systems which are driven by reports from workers.

Workplace cultures will not change while the onus rests solely on individuals who are silenced by hostile workplaces. We need to shift the onus of dealing with sexual harassment at work from these individuals to employers.

  • Introduce a new legal duty to prevent harassment. The government must introduce a mandatory duty for employers to protect workers from all forms of harassment (including sexual harassment) and victimisation. A breach of the duty should constitute an unlawful act for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 and be enforceable by the EHRC. This would create a clear and enforceable legal requirement on all employers to safeguard their workers and help bring about cultural change in the workplace.
  • Introduce a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment and harassment at work. This must be LGBT inclusive and use the findings of this report supported by meaningful engagement with the LGBT community to inform the drafting of the code. The code should also specify the steps that employers should take to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, and which can be considered in evidence when determining whether the mandatory duty has been breached.
  • Strengthen legislation to tackle third-party harassment. Employers currently have a duty of care for all workers; however, in relation to third party harassment is not always clear to employers or workers what this means. The government must reintroduce section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 which places a duty on employers to protect workers from third-party harassment. Government should also strengthen it by removing the requirement that an employer needs to know that an employee has been subjected to two or more instances of harassment before they become liable. This would ensure clear and comprehensive legal protection on the grounds of sexual harassment. 23
  • Strengthen evidence base. In any future research exploring sexual harassment at work, government should ensure that the distinct experiences of LGBT people are analysed. Government should also build on the findings set out in this report by conducting further research to explore the experiences of the specific groups that experienced the highest levels of sexual harassment and sexual assault at work, with a particular focus on LGBT BME women, disabled women and trans men where additional research would address current evidence gaps.
  • Funding for specialist services. Many services, both in the public and voluntary sectors, have faced years of underfunding and resource cuts. The government must ensure there is adequate funding for organisations combating sexual violence and providing support to survivors of sexual violence. It is particularly important that LGBT, women’s and BME women’s services receive adequate levels of funding so that LGBT workers are able to access services tailored for them.
  • Reinstating employment tribunals’ power to make wider recommendations. The Equality Act 2010 gave employment tribunals the power to make wider recommendations for the benefit of the wider workforce, not just the individual claimant, in relation to discrimination claims. This power was removed by the Deregulation Act 2015. In workplaces where a culture of bullying and harassment has been allowed to flourish or where there are systemic failures of the organisation to respond adequately to complaints of harassment, the power to make wider recommendations would be of great benefit.

Regulatory bodies

  • Guidance for employers. The EHRC should in the short term, before any statutory code of practice is published, issue LGBT-inclusive guidance for employers on how to address sexual harassment in the workplace that is LGBT inclusive and uses the findings of this report to identify specific difficulties facing the LGBT community for inclusion within the guidance.
  • Strengthen the role of regulatory bodies. Given the worryingly high levels of workplace sexual harassment, sexual assault, serious sexual assault and rape the research found, there is a clear need for greater activity, including enforcement activity, by regulatory bodies such as the EHRC which has responsibility for equality legislation, and the HSE, which has responsibility to ensure the risks of encountering harassment and violence at work are assessed and prevented or controlled. The government should work with these organisations to coordinate an appropriate response to the findings of this research and are provided with the necessary resources to do this.


The research found very few LGBT workers reported sexual harassment to their employer, and that one quarter of them felt unable to bring a complaint for fear of ‘outing’ themselves: revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity. To address this employer should:

  • Make all work policies inclusive. Ensure all their policies, including those on harassment and sexual harassment, are LGBT inclusive, using appropriate language, examples and case studies. All staff should receive training on these policies, including new staff in their induction, so that the whole workforce understands the policy and their role in ensuring the workplace is free from sexual harassment and victimisation.
  • Review existing policies. Workplace policies should be reviewed in light of this report, with the relevant unions’ involvement to ensure that workers’, including LGBT workers’, complaints of sexual harassment are taken seriously and resolved to the workers’ satisfaction. Employers should work with recognised trade unions when developing these policies.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance approach. Employers should take a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of discrimination and harassment (and sexual harassment). This should include workplace policies and training, including what bystanders should do to challenge harassment. Where such incidents do occur, there should be clear disciplinary procedures in place for the perpetrator and support for the victim.
  • Training. HR and all levels of management should receive training on sexual harassment, what constitutes sexual harassment, stalking and online harassment, relevant law and workplace policies, and how to respond to complaints of sexual harassment. In some workplaces, training for all staff may be appropriate.

Trade unions

The research found overall low reporting levels of sexual harassment. However, among those who had experienced sexual harassment, union members were significantly more likely to report it. Around one third (32 per cent) of union members reported their sexual harassment. Unions can negotiate better policies and support members to resolve ongoing issues.

  • Review guidance and training. Unions should review their guidance and training for reps on how to support members who have been sexually harassed to ensure they are LGBT inclusive.
  • Review employer policies on sexual harassment. Unions should work with employers to review their policies on sexual harassment, to ensure they are LGBT-inclusive by using appropriate language, examples and case studies throughout.
  • Negotiate robust workplace policies. Any policy that aims to tackle harassment, abuse or violence should clearly define the behaviours, and recognise the employer’s duty to prevent and/or deal with any harassment from third-parties. Unions may want to collect anonymised information about members’ experiences of third-party harassment, abuse or violence to help strengthen negotiations with an employer.
  • Workplace campaigns. Run workplace campaigns and organising. Trade unions should publicise the support they can offer in all cases of harassment, abuse and violence and proactively target recruitmentWorkplace campaigns. Run workplace campaigns and organising. Trade unions should publicise the support they can offer in all cases of harassment, abuse and violence and proactively target recruitment
  • 23.

    Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 placed a duty of the employer to act where an employee was being harassed by a third-party in certain circumstances. This was repealed in 2013.