Code of practice to clamp down on sexual harassment at work

Table of Contents:

Code of practice to clamp down on sexual harassment at work

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Code of practice to clamp down on sexual harassment at work


These categories group together and put in context the legislative and non-legislative initiatives which deal with the same topic.

Employment and social policy > Equality between men and women

Code of practice to clamp down on sexual harassment at work

Document or Iniciative

Commission code of practice on sexual harassment [Official Journal L 49 of 24.02.1992].


The Commission restates the general definition of sexual harassment contained in its Recommendation. National judges will still have to decide whether cases brought to their attention fall within this category and are to be regarded as a criminal offence, an infringement of statutory obligations (especially in health and safety matters) or a contravention of obligations imposed on employers by contract or otherwise. It calls on employers in the public and private sectors, trade unions and employees to follow the guidelines of the code and to include appropriate clauses in collective bargaining agreements.

Recommendations to employers


Employers should issue a policy statement which expressly states that sexual harassment will not be permitted or condoned and that employees have a right to complain about it should it occur. The policy statement should leave no doubt as to what is considered inappropriate behaviour which may, in certain circumstances, be unlawful. It should also explain the procedure to be followed for making a complaint or obtaining assistance, and should specify the disciplinary measures applicable. It should provide assurance that complaints will be dealt with seriously, expeditiously and confidentially, and that complainants will be protected against victimization. Once it has been drawn up, the statement must be communicated to everyone concerned, so as to ensure the widest possible awareness. Managers are to explain the organization’s policy to their staff, and are expected to take appropriate measures, act supportively towards victims and provide any information required. The provision of training for managers and supervisors is an important means of combating sexual harassment.


Clear and precise procedures must be developed, giving practical guidance on how to deal with this problem. Such guidance must draw the employees’ attention to their legal rights and to any time limits within which they must be exercised. Employees should be advised to try first of all to resolve the problem informally by explaining, either themselves or through a third party, that the behaviour in question is not welcome, offends them and interferes with their work. If the unwelcome conduct persists, there will be grounds for making a complaint. To this end, it is recommended that a formal procedure for dealing with complaints be set up, in which employees can place their trust and which specifies the person to whom the complaint should be brought. It is also recommended that someone be designated to provide advice and assistance. The complainant and the alleged harasser have the right to be represented by a trade union representative, a friend or a colleague. Employers should monitor and review these procedures in order to ensure that they are working effectively. Investigations of complaints are to be carried out with sensitivity by independent persons, with due respect for the rights of the complainant and the alleged harasser. Complaints must be resolved speedily and confidentially at the end of an investigation focusing on the facts. Any violation of the organization’s policy should be treated as a disciplinary offence. Disciplinary rules should make clear what is regarded as inappropriate behaviour and should indicate the range of penalties. Any victimization or retaliation against an employee bringing a complaint in good faith is to be considered as a disciplinary offence.

Recommendations to trade unions

Sexual harassment is a trade union issue which must be treated seriously and sympathetically when complaints arise. Trade unions are expected to formulate and issue clear policy statements on sexual harassment and to take steps to raise awareness of the problem, in order to help create a climate in which sexual harassment is neither condoned nor ignored. They should declare that sexual harassment is inappropriate behaviour and should inform staff about its consequences. It is also a good idea to ensure that there are sufficient female representatives to support women subjected to sexual harassment.

Employees’ responsibilities

Employees have a clear role to play in discouraging any form of reprehensible behaviour and making it unacceptable. They can contribute to preventing sexual harassment through awareness and sensitivity towards the issue and by ensuring that standards of conduct for themselves and for colleagues do not cause offence. Employees should lend support to victims of harassment and should inform management and/or their staff representative through the appropriate channels.

Related Acts

of 24 July 1996 on the Consultation of Management and Labour on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Work.

In 1996, the Commission adopted a communication launching the first phase of consultation of management and labour on the prevention of sexual harassment at work. At the same time, it presented a report assessing the 1991 recommendation on the protection of the dignity of men and women at work, which was drawn up on the basis of information sent by the Member States. Consultation of management and labour revealed differences in opinion on how to combat sexual harassment: the employers’ organisations wanted to limit measures to national initiatives, whereas the trade unions called for the adoption of a binding Community instrument. The Commission noted the failure of national repressive rules and therefore advocated implementing a general prevention policy comprising rules and procedures suited to the work environment. A second consultation phase was launched with the Commission communication of 19 March 1997. Since the social partners declined to give an opinion on the content of a general policy and to negotiate a collective agreement at European level, the Commission may, as announced in its 1997 Communication, seek other ways of preventing sexual harassment, including the adoption of a binding legal instrument.

Council Declaration of 19 December 1991 on the implementation of the Commission Recommendation on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work, including the code of practice to combat sexual harassment [Official Journal C 27 of 04.02.1992].

The Council, which fully endorses the Commission’s opinion, asks:

  • the Member States to intensify their efforts to promote the integration of women in the workplace;
  • the Commission to promote the exchange of information and good practice between the Member States;
  • the Commission to submit to the European Parliament, the Council and the Economic and Social Committee the report provided for in Article 4 of the Commission’s recommendation, not more than three years after the adoption of this declaration.

Council Resolution of 29 May 1990 on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work [Official Journal C157 of 27.06.1990].

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