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Discrimination at work - bullying and harassment

This advice applies to Wales

If you’re bullied at work or your colleagues behave in an offensive or intimidating way towards you, it could be unlawful harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Harassment is a form of discrimination under the Act.

Read this page to find out more about harassment at work and what you can do about it.

What’s harassment?

Harassment can be a one-off incident - for example, if a colleague makes a racist comment to you in front of other staff. It can also be a series of incidents or bullying which takes place over time. It can happen at work, but also outside work at work-related trips or social events.

Examples of harassment include:

  • spreading malicious rumours
  • unjustified criticism aimed at undermining you
  • racist or homophobic comments or jokes
  • pranks
  • unjustified threats about your job
  • physical violence
  • humiliating behaviour
  • unwelcome sexual advances or comments.

If you’re harassed at work - for example, by a colleague or a manager - it can affect your health and well-being, as well as your work performance. Stress and anxiety can lead to sickness absence and you may even feel like resigning if the harassment doesn’t stop.

What can you do about harassment at work?

Your employer should protect you from harassment at work and you can ask your employer to take action to stop the harassment from happening.

All harassment is unacceptable and likely to amount to a breach of your contract of employment and health and safety laws. Harassment that is related to a protected characteristic is unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act. This means you can take action under the Act. In particular, you can make a claim for unlawful harassment in the employment tribunal.

Is it unlawful harassment under the Equality Act?

In  order to count as unlawful harassment under the Equality Act the harassment must be related to one of the following things:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics.

Bullying can be unlawful harassment under the Act if it’s related to one of the protected characteristics.

Example

You’re being bullied at work by your new manager because you’re gay. He often uses abusive language towards you and tells you to ‘man up’. Once he put a sticker on your computer screen to remind you not speak in a ‘camp’ manner on the phone. He made you keep the sticker for a whole week.

Your manager is being abusive towards you because of your sexual orientation. His behaviour is offensive and creates an intimidating work environment for you. This is unlawful harassment under the Equality Act.

Taking action about harassment at work

If you’re being harassed at work, it’s a good idea to keep a diary or record of the following things:

  • date, time and location of the incidents
  • what was said or done
  • names of any witnesses
  • if there have been incidents directed at other workers
  • how the harassment made you feel, including any effects it had on your health and impact it had on your work.

If you want to take action about harassment, you can contact an experienced adviser who can help you - for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. You can also get help from a trade union representative at work, if there is one, or seek help from the appropriate union office if there isn’t.

Talking to the person harassing you

You can ask the harasser to stop. Only do this if you feel it's safe. You should make it clear that you find the behaviour offensive and that you’ll take further action if the harassment doesn’t stop.

You could ask for an informal discussion with the harasser and it may help you to have a colleague with you when you do this and at any subsequent discussions.

If you don’t want to talk to the harasser, you can write to them or ask someone else to write on your behalf. Keep a copy of all the correspondence you send and receive from the harasser and any other person involved.

Talking to your manager

If another colleague is harassing you, you can talk to your manager about it. If it’s your line manager who’s harassing you, you should approach a more senior manager or a member of the human resources department. You can ask a colleague to come with you to the meeting.

Think about what action you want your employer to take - for example, for the harasser to apologise or moving the harasser to a different workplace. If you’re offered an alternative job, you should make sure it’s no less favourable than your existing one.

Taking further action

If the harassment doesn’t stop or your employer doesn’t take your complaint seriously, you should make a formal complaint or raise a grievance.

If you're problem isn't resolved, you can also make a harassment claim in the employment tribunal under the Equality Act. You need to make sure:

  • the behaviour counts as unlawful harassment under the Act, and
  • you’re within the 3 months’ time limit for making your claim.

If you resign because of the harassment

Harassment, whether related to a protected characteristic or not, and failure to protect you from harassment, are serious breaches of your contract of employment. While you should think carefully about resigning, if you do you may be able to make a claim for unfair constructive dismissal. Not everyone has the right to claim unfair constructive dismissal so you should check your legal position first.

Next steps

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