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What is Workplace Harassment?

23 Aug 2021

Workplace harassment is a specific form of bullying that relates to protected characteristics, such as the age or sex of the recipient. As such, harassment at work encompasses any behaviour that relates to protected characteristics and makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or offended. It is illegal according to the Equality Act 2010.

As is the case with bullying at work, workplace harassment is defined by its effect on the recipient’s emotional wellbeing and the underlying reason behind it, not the act itself. A wide range of different behaviours can therefore constitute harassment, provided that they are related to protected characteristics and affect the recipient’s emotional wellbeing as long as it is reasonable for the conduct to have that effect.

Protected Characteristics in Workplace Harassment

The definition of workplace harassment, then, rests on a set of officially recognised protected characteristics. This list exists to safeguard individuals from any prejudice at work by ensuring that discriminatory forms of bullying are acknowledged as unlawful. The following protected characteristics are officially recognised in UK law as receiving protection from harassment:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Gender reassignment (covering those who are planning to transition, are undergoing transition, or have already transitioned).
  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability, even if you have recovered from a past disability.
  • Race
  • Religion or belief, including no religion or philosophical beliefs.

Is Your Employer Responsible?

Your employer is ultimately responsible for ensuring that bullying and harassment do not occur between colleagues in the workplace and is liable if you are suffering from one of these issues and you are protected by the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality Act applies to the majority of workers, but will not apply if you are a volunteer without a contract, working illegally, or self-employed and able to send another to work in your place.

If you are protected by the Equality Act 2010, your employer is responsible for harassment by any of your colleagues that happens at work, at a work-related event (like a business trip) or at company-organised social events. Your employer is not responsible for harassment by customers or staff from other companies, though they still have a duty to protect you from any workplace discrimination that they are aware of.

It is also possible that your company will be responsible if you were harassed by a non-employee whom they had given authority to. If you are unsure, get in touch and we will be happy to help you understand the situation.

Despite the employer’s ultimate responsibility for harassment, there are a number of steps that you can take as an employee, culminating in taking a formal complaint to your employer or possible legal action if the issue cannot be resolved any other way.

What to Do If You Are Being Harassed at Work

The first step if you are experiencing harassment in any way is to try to resolve the problem informally. Remember, harassment can occur remotely just as easily as face-to-face, so you can and should raise it as early as possible if you feel able to bring it up with the other person.

The UK government advises a number of other people to talk to if you cannot resolve the issue yourself, including your manager, HR department or a trade union representative. If there is no way to resolve the problem, you should make a complaint using your company’s grievance procedure.

Follow the 6 step process in our article on dealing with bullying at work for more information.

Can Workplace Harassment Be a Crime?

It is possible for workplace harassment to be a crime if it gets to the extent of a criminal activity, such as a physical threat or sexual assault. If you have a reason to be concerned for your safety, the best course of action is to call the police.

We have solicitors experienced in criminal law as well as employment law, so please do get in touch if you are unsure about your situation.

Can I bring any other claims?

In addition to claims under Equality Act 2010, victims of harassment also have the possibility of bringing a claim in the civil courts under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Written by Jayne Harrison

Jayne joined Richard Nelson LLP in 2018 as a Partner and manages the firm's employment law services. After training at a top 100 law firm, Jayne spent the last 13 years at Chattertons and then Cleggs Solicitors. She represents employees and professionals in regulated industries.

Read more about Jayne Harrison.

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