Harassment at work

Did you know that as an employer you could be liable for your employees' harassment? in the office?

First published on Friday, Jun 19, 2020

Last updated on Wednesday, May 24, 2023

As a business, you should treat this issue very seriously. If handled incorrectly, it can result in employment tribunal claims, unhappy employees, and plunging retention rates.

As such, address workplace harassment appropriately and be willing to investigate any claims raised within your company.

In this article, we’ll explain exactly how you can go about that.

But remember, this is a serious issue—if you need immediate assistance, use our employment law advice software for help.

What is bullying and harassment in the workplace?

It’s when a company director, manager, or staff member affect a colleague with unwanted behaviour. This can be intimidating or upsetting conduct for one or more employees.

Harassment at work examples include:

  • Threats or abuse (spoken or written).
  • [Unwelcome sexual advances](https://www.brighthr.com/articles/equality-and-discrimination/sexual-harassment/.
  • 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.

Remember that bullying and harassment at work are marginally different. The latter has the definition under British law as:

“Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

You should make the meaning of workplace harassment clear in your policies so your employees have a sound understanding of what it constitutes.

Meanwhile, we can define bullying behaviour as anything that’s offensive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting. It’s not actually identified within the Equality Act 2010, but many of the characteristics are the same as harassment.

This can sometimes be confusing for business, so there’s a simple way of remembering your commitment to your employees.

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

You should be on the lookout for signs of harassment at work—this can help your business to stamp it out before it becomes a more significant problem.

Some of the warning behaviour to look out for includes:

  • Intimidating behaviour, such as veiled threats.
  • Acts of deceit—not telling the truth or creating false hopes.
  • Isolating or excluding employees from colleagues.
  • Shaming staff members—making them feel they’re to blame for things they aren’t.
  • Managers or company directors having mood swings.
  • Aggression—such as shouting, which is verbal harassment at work.
  • Belittling—this can be in disparaging an employee’s work repeatedly.
  • Blocking career advancement unfairly.

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 else—feel 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, 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 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 employees will be shy—more so than others—and prefer to avoid conflict of any kind.

Before you know what's going on, the staff member might lose their morale. They can start missing KPIs, take sick days, or hand in their notice.

If they feel particularly aggrieved, they may also make a claim for an employment tribunal—that can involve significant costs against your business.

So it’s important to have the right employment law bullying, harassment, or victimisation policies in place to ensure there’s fair treatment for all of your workforce.

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

Reporting bullying at work is essential. As it’s an unlawful activity, that much is clear. But did you know that as an employer you could be liable for your employees' harassment in the office?

You’re responsible for the health & safety of your staff. As such, reporting harassment at work is a right for your employees—it can help create an open and fair atmosphere across your organisation.

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

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

Make it clear staff can submit a grievance. Your procedure for this must be clear and accessible—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.

Need our help?

As this can be a serious issue that needs legal assistance, if you’re worried about harassment in your organisation you should get in touch now for help: 0800 783 2806.

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