What is harassment in the workplace?

It's harassment at work when you affect a colleague with unwanted conduct such as:

  • Threats or abuse (spoken or written).
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Offensive emails, tweets, or comments on social networking sites.
  • Offensive emblems or flags.
  • Physical behaviour like gestures or facial expressions.
  • Pranks, jokes, or teasing.
  • Exclusion or victimisation.
  • Insults.
  • Spreading rumours.
  • Undermining a competent employee with constant criticism.

Whatever you say, write, or do is workplace harassment if it violates the dignity of a co-worker or makes them feel upset, shamed, or scared because of your conduct.

You don't need to have aimed what you did at the colleague for them to feel harassed, either. If you're making jokes in your team, for example, somebody else in the office could still feel dismayed as a result.

Some incidents are continuous. Some are one-offs. There's no need for the person who feels harassed to have complained about your behaviour in the past. One instance is one instance too many.

Stop it early if you can

If you think you've seen harassment take place in your office, or if somebody has affected you with any of the above workplace harassment examples, one plan is to speak to the person about what they did and ask them not to do it again.

Explain that you—or somebody elsefeel uncomfortable.

If this chat doesn't go well, or they ignore you and do it again, it's a larger problem.

Employee harassment laws

Harassment by someone at work is unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 if the conduct is due to or related to any of nine 'protected characteristics':

  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.

Of course, you might not be the one responsible for the unwanted conduct.

One of your employees might do or say something that leads to another of your staff feeling harassed while you're out of the office, at a meeting, or simply not in earshot.

You might not know it's going on in your office.

You can't guarantee that your upset employee will feel confident enough to complain, especially if their harasser was their line manager or somebody in your senior management team.

Some people are more timid than others are and prefer to avoid conflict of any kind.

Before you know what's going on, the staff member might lose their morale.

Their results might drop.

They might even take an absence. Or resign.

Worse, they could take you to a tribunal.

Clarify how to make a harassment claim at work for your staff

Harassment is unlawful, that much is clear. But did you know that as an employer you could be liable for your employees' harassment in the office?

You are responsible for the health and safety of your staff.

The last thing you need in your business is staff resigning because they didn't know how to act when somebody else's actions hurt them.

So, make sure that you have a written zero-tolerance policy regarding harassment, with guidance on what an employee should do if they feel harassed.

Namely, they can submit a grievance.

Your procedure for a grievance must be clear and accessible, and it's your obligation to respond to it.

Keep your door open for your staff

Lead by example in building a culture of respect in your workplace. Have an open door policy for your staff to come to you if they have an issue. If your business has an HR team, let them act on any harassment cases.