What is Harassment in the Workplace?

By Amanda Beattie
20 Aug 2018

Harassment at work involves one or more employees causing a colleague to feel upset, shamed, intimidated, or violated in some way.

Common workplace harassment examples include:

  • Spreading rumours.
  • Insults, pranks, jokes, and teasing.
  • Flags and emblems that are offensive.
  • Exclusion.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Undermining a competent employee with criticism on a continuous basis.
  • Threats.
  • Abuse.
  • Offensive emails, tweets, and social networking interactions.

Physical behaviour, like gestures, facial expressions, and the invasion of personal space can all count, too.

These examples are of conduct the victim does not want to suffer. It doesn’t matter whether the form of this unwanted conduct is in writing, audio, spoken, or otherwise.

Aiming any such harassment at one person specifically is not the only way a colleague could suffer the feelings of violation or intimidation—if someone overhears something that’s not aimed at them, they could suffer from the unwanted behaviour.

Does Workplace Harassment have to be Continuous Behaviour?

Unwanted conduct that amounts to harassment can be a one-off incident, or it can be a continuous problem—once you’re aware of a problem in the office, you should begin an investigation to learn more about what’s been happening. One instance of harassment is one instance too many.

Are there Employee Harassment Laws in Place?

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment at work relating to anyone’s protected characteristics is unlawful discrimination.

The nine protected characteristics are:

  1. Age.
  2. Disability.
  3. Gender reassignment.
  4. Sex.
  5. Sexual orientation.
  6. Marriage and civil partnership.
  7. Pregnancy and maternity.
  8. Race, colour, ethnic or national origin.
  9. Religion and belief.

Your Harassment Policy

Above all, your policy should explain that you have zero tolerance as an organisation for harassment and bullying.

In addition, your policy should also clarify what an employee needs to do if they want to make a harassment complaint at work. Once someone lets you know, you can begin an investigation if you weren’t already aware of the conduct.

For example, it might be taking place outside of earshot, or on days when you’re not around to oversee the workplace.

Furthermore, give all managers and supervisors the chance to do safeguarding training. As a result of this training, you will better the chances of them spotting unwanted behaviour at work.

Ways to Approach a Harassment Problem

Your first option is to speak to the person whose behaviour is offending others. Let your employee know that what they did is affecting their colleagues, and ask them to stop.

If their conduct doesn’t improve, you should start a formal disciplinary process—using a fair procedure—to reach a conclusion.

Invite your employee to a formal hearing. Let them know they can bring someone with them, such as a colleague or a trade union representative.

Review all evidence and witness statements.

Let your employee give any evidence of their own, including a statement.

Always let an employee appeal the hearing’s outcome if they choose. Also, make sure you include their right to appeal in written correspondence to them when you tell them the outcome of the hearing and what it means.

Talk to an expert

Did you know that you might be liable for the harassment that your staff suffer at work? You're responsible for their health and safety.

Croner has a team of employment law experts who can help you with any queries you have about harassment at work. This includes training and tribunal representation. Get in touch today on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Amanda Beattie

Amanda represents corporate clients and large public bodies, including complex discrimination and whistleblowing claims. Amanda also drafts and delivers bespoke training regarding all aspects of employment law, including ‘mock tribunal’ events; in addition she also frequently drafts employment law articles for various publications for Croner and their clients.