Sexual harassment at work

Sexual harassment can occur in any workplace – regardless of the sector and the company’s size.

The General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) protects employees against any form of sexual harassment at work and requires employers to ensure a safe work environment that is free from any harassment.

Unfortunately, in many sectors there is still a lack of prevention and functioning complaints structures that protect employees against discrimination. At the same time, many people experiencing sexual harassment are unaware of their rights. The Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency provides information and advice to people who have been harassed and supports employers in enforcing legal protection against discrimination by offering information, studies and material.

The following FAQs provide you with a brief overview of the subject:

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Sexual harassment at work is any sexual behaviour unwanted by the person concerned. It includes not only verbal and physical harassment, such as comments of a sexual nature or unwanted physical contact, but also non-verbal forms of harassment, such as lewd looks or the showing of pornographic images.

    The latest study by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency "Dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace - Results of a study on dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace" shows the importance of this comprehensive protection: 62 per cent of respondents experienced harassment in the form of comments of a sexual nature, 44 per cent reported unwanted looks, gestures or wolf-whistling, and 26 per cent reported unwanted physical contact.

    Particularly important to note: the law defines sexual harassment in terms of the objective perception of what happened and not in terms of the intention of the harassing person. Thus, the key aspect is only whether certain conduct is objectively of a sexual nature and the person concerned felt harassed by it.

  • The latest study by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency "Dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace - Results of a study on dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace" shows that 9 per cent of all employees (women: 13 per cent, men: 5 per cent) were sexually harassed at work in the past three years.

    Harassment was experienced across all sectors. Even though there are specific trends, such as employees in the services sector being harassed particularly often by customers, there is a risk of harassment everywhere – in any occupation and in companies of any size.

    The issue: although harassment is almost always perceived as humiliating, threatening or mentally straining, many employees fail to take action to address it. They also often fail to report it to superiors – not least because persons concerned do not know how their employer would deal with the complaint.

    Employers should therefore regard the prevention of sexual harassment as an essential part of occupational health and safety.

  • You are specifically required to protect your employees from being discriminated against. In concrete terms this means that you must

    1. inform employees of the legal protection from harassment in your company and take preventive action to ensure a safer work environment (duty to prevent and inform).
    2. establish a body to which employees may submit complaints if they are discriminated against or harassed at work (complaints body pursuant to section 13 of the General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG))
    3. take every complaint seriously, examine the individual case and, in the event of harassment, take precautions ensuring that such harassment may not happen again (duty to act).

    By the way: you are required to protect your employees from any sexual harassment – whether by superiors, colleagues, customers or other contractual partners.

  • There are no legal requirements on concrete measures to be implemented by you, as you know your company best.

    But: the more comprehensive the precautions, the lower your liability risk and the higher the awareness among your employees of the fact that sexual harassment is not tolerated in your company – this is an important signal both to persons concerned and potential perpetrators.

    Putting up posters and displaying brochures and information on counselling centres are some of the things, for example, that you can do that do not involve much effort. Ensuring a safe work environment in the long term, however, requires training, continuing education and, in particular, establishing a complaints body and concrete rules for complaints procedures.

    Another effective tool to prevent and deal with sexual harassment at work is the conclusion of company agreements. Such agreements allow you to state in concrete terms that sexual harassment is prohibited, to specify preventive action in the company and to set out the procedure for handling complaints of sexual harassment.

  • Handling complaints successfully is mainly determined by whether the related procedure fits your company and clearly states the possibilities of lodging a complaint and the responsibilities of the parties involved. You should strongly consider the following:

    1. The complaints body plays a central role, which is why every company is required to establish one. Its main task is to investigate and review the facts of the case after a complaint has been made. In addition, it can assume other tasks such as providing information or evaluating the complaints procedure. It does not act as a counselling unit, however, whose responsibility would be to side with the persons affected. Rather, the complaints body assumes employer responsibilities during the complaints procedure and must act objectively.
    2. As an employer, you can designate a specific person to handle complaints or establish a dedicated complaints body. Such body may be organisationally located in various places, for example in the HR department, at the works council or – if that proves difficult – externally, e.g. at supra-company level at an umbrella organisation. It is important that responsibilities are separate from those of the company’s management.
    3. Having a specified complaints procedure in place is essential in cases of sexual harassment. A complaint is a stressful situation for all parties involved, which repeatedly results in errors when handling confidentiality and making decisions. This is why all parties involved, especially employees, should know about the procedural steps. The procedure should clearly set out what steps will be taken first when a complaint is made, what parties will be involved, at what stage interviews with staff will be held and how decisions on protective measures and sanctions will be made.

“Examples of good practice” in protecting employees against harassment at work

More and more private businesses and public employers are actively working to protect their employees against sexual harassment in the work environment. By offering tailored measures to prevent and adequately handle sexual harassment in the workplace, they live up to their responsibility and thus act as role models

Under the banner of "#betriebsklimaschutz", we have put together a collection of 25 examplary measures that public and private employers can take to tackle sexual harassment at work and to take a clear stand against sexual harassment. The collection of good-practice examples (only available in German) showcases how preventive measures and interventions can be implemented in various sectors and companies of different sizes. It aims to inspire employers to get actively involved and offers a wide range of ideas.

"#betriebsklimaschutz": Order posters and postcards