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Harassment at work

Harassment at work and bullying in the workplace is unpleasant for employees and managers, damaging for organisations and can result in serious illness as well as legal claims: both against the perpetrator as well as the employer.

This short note provides some information about what harassment at work is, legally.

If you are an employer who has become aware of harassment in the workplace, please refer to our disciplinary procedures product.

Do you need a lawyer to help you with harassment at work?

What is harassment at work?

Harassment at work is defined as unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It can of course take many forms and can be physical or emotional.

Harassment at work differs from general bullying as it refers only to unwanted conduct on grounds of the legally protected characteristics such as race, gender etc. In other words, if an employee is being aggressive towards another employee because they are female this is harassment. If the reason for the conduct is that the aggressor believes the victim has stolen from him, this is bullying not harassment.

Examples of harassment

Harassment can take many forms, but her are some examples:

  • Belittling treatment of an employee in front of their work colleagues.
  • Unfair treatment.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Making threats or comments about job security without foundation.

Harassment at work does not always take place face to face; but often occurs in emails, written communication and phone calls.

Harassment can make employees feel anxious and unhappy and cause stress, loss of self confidence and self-esteem. This often, in turn, leads to ill health such as anxiety disorders of depression.

Harassment: key points

  • Harassment at work does not have to happen over a course of time.  Often a one-off incident can amount to harassment.
  • The perpetrator does not have to be aware that the victim deems the conduct unwanted.
  • The conduct must relate to one of the nine protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act 2010.
  • Employees are also protected against harassment even if the harassment is not directed at them or if they are wrongly perceived as having a protected characteristic.  This greatly widens the protection offered.
  • To amount to harassment at work, A’s conduct must have the effect of violating B’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.
  • Unwanted conduct relating to marriage, civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity are not protected characteristics for harassment purposes.  However these matters could amount to sex or sexual orientation harassment.

What is “unwanted conduct”?

For the conduct to be unwanted the victim is not required to have notified the perpetrator that the conduct is not wanted. It is important to note that even if the employee has put up with the conduct for years or even joined in with the banter this does not necessarily mean that the conduct is not unwanted. In essence, this comes down to what the employee will say after the event.

What amounts to harassment “by association and perception”?

Harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic”.  Accordingly this does not mean it has to be the victim’s protected characteristic.  The Equality Act 2010 now covers harassment based on “association and perception”. For example, a person who is harassed at work because of their spouse’s disability, or a person who is harassed because they are wrongly perceived to be of a specific religious belief, will have a claim.

For business law advice call 0845 225 2635

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