Harassment is when someone behaves in a way which offends you or makes you feel distressed or intimidated. This could be abusive comments or jokes, graffiti or insulting gestures. Harassment is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. If you’ve experienced this kind of behaviour you may be able to do something about it.
Read this page to find out more about harassment under the Equality Act. To find out about all types of harassment, see Other types of harassment.
What’s meant by harassment?
Harassment is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in the civil courts. If you’ve been treated badly, but it’s not unlawful discrimination there may be other things you can do.
Harassment is unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated. It can happen on its own or alongside other forms of discrimination.
Unwanted behaviour could be:
- spoken or written words or abuse
- offensive emails, tweets or comments on social networking sites
- images and graffiti
- physical gestures
- facial expressions
You don’t need to have previously objected to something for it to be unwanted.
When is harassment unlawful discrimination?
Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act if it’s because of or connected to one of these things:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics. Harassment because of one of these characteristics is called harassment related to a protected characteristic.
Harassment because you’re pregnant or you’ve recently given birth
If you experience harassment because you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or you’ve recently given birth, this could be harassment related to sex.
What’s the effect of or the intention behind the harassment?
The Equality Act says it’s harassment where the behaviour is meant to or has the effect of either:
- violating your dignity, or
- creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
This means it’s harassment even if the person harassing you didn’t mean to offend or intimidate you, as long as the harassment has one of the above effects.
If you go to court, the judge may have to decide if it’s harassment or not. They will look at how the behaviour made you feel and whether it’s reasonable for you to feel this way.
Examples of harassment related to a protected characteristic
The harassment may be directed at you, but it can also be directed at someone else or even at no-one in particular. It may have to do with your or someone else’s protected characteristic. It may not have anything to do with you but you still find it offensive.
As long as it’s related to a protected characteristic, it can be harassment.
You’re a woman. Whenever you work out at your local gym the other male gym users tease you and make insulting comments– for example, that it’s better not talk to you right now as it must be your time of the month again. You could have a claim for harassment related to sex.
A bus driver is making racist comments about black people whilst driving. This isn’t addressed at anyone in particular, but it creates an intimidating and hostile environment for the passengers, including you, who are on the bus. You could bring a claim for harassment related to race even though you’re not black.
You go out for dinner with your lesbian mums to celebrate your birthday. Some of the restaurant staff make anti-gay comments to each other throughout the evening about your parents. The comments are loud enough for everyone to hear. You find the comments offensive and feel very distressed by the staff’s behaviour. You could have a claim for harassment related to sexual orientation.
Harassment because of a protected characteristic someone thinks you have
You can be harassed because of a protected characteristic that someone thinks you have, even though you don't.
Whilst waiting to be served at a bar, you hear the staff make loud and insulting comments about your appearance, saying you’re a male to female transsexual. Despite the fact this isn’t true, you feel intimidated and upset by their remarks and decide to leave. This could be harassment related to gender reassignment.
Harassment because of a protected characteristic it’s known you don’t have
You can also be harassed about a protected characteristic that someone knows you don’t actually have.
At work, some of your colleagues keep making comments and jokes saying you’re gay. They call you names and have on occasion left things like gay adult movies and magazines on your desk. They all know you’re not actually gay. You could have claim for harassment related to sexual orientation.
If you’re treated badly because of your reaction to harassment
If you’re treated badly or less favourably because of your reaction to harassment which is related to sex or gender reassignment, you may have a claim under the Equality Act. The Act says this is also harassment. You’re protected if you either reject or submit to the harassment.
The person who treats you less favourably can be the person who actually harassed you, but it can also be someone else.
If someone behaves in a way which makes you feel distressed, intimidated or offended and the behaviour is of a sexual nature, this is called sexual harassment.
Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)
If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
- You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at www.equalityhumanrights.com.