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Harassment at work

This advice applies to Wales

The Equality Act 2010 protects you from harassment at work by your employer or colleagues. It includes things like abusive or threatening comments, jokes or behaviour.

If you’ve experienced harassment at work, you may be able to do something about it.

Read this page to find out more about harassment at work.

When is something harassment?

Harassment is unwanted or unwelcome behaviour which is meant to or has the effect of either:

  • violating your dignity, or
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

It doesn't have to be directed at you - for example, if your colleagues make jokes or comments to each other within your earshot. Bullying can be unlawful harassment under the Equality Act.

Unwanted behaviour could be:

  • spoken or written words
  • threats or abuse
  • offensive emails, tweets or comments on social networking sites
  • physical behaviour including physical gestures and facial expressions
  • jokes, teasing and pranks.

Harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act. If you've been unlawfully harassed, you can take action under the Act.

If you’ve been harassed but it’s not unlawful discrimination, there may be other things you can do - for example, you can still complain to your employer about it or you may be able to take action under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Why did the harassment happen?

Harassment by someone at work is unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act if it’s because of, or related to:

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

The Equality Act calls these things protected characteristics. Harassment which is because of one of these things is called harassment related to a protected characteristic.

Example

You’re being bullied at work by your manager. He’s verbally abusive towards you because you’re a Roma Gypsy. He also makes offensive jokes to other colleagues about Gypsies which you overhear.

You’ve raised the issue with the human resources department and they gave your line manager a warning but the bullying still goes on.

This is likely to be unlawful harassment related to your race and your employer should take action to stop the harassment. As they've failed to do this, you can make a claim about unlawful harassment in the employment tribunal.

If you’re pregnant

The Equality Act doesn’t cover harassment related to pregnancy and maternity. But if you’re harassed because you’re pregnant or because you’ve recently had a baby, you may be able to complain about harassment related to sex.

What’s meant by sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is where the unwanted behaviour is of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is also unlawful under the Equality Act.

This can include:

  • sexual comments or jokes
  • physical conduct, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, sexual assault
  • displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
  • sending emails with a sexual content.

Example

You’ve just started a new job. Your manager has asked you out making it clear that if you don’t say yes you’ll be dismissed. This is sexual harassment and is unlawful under the Equality Act. You should discuss this with a more senior manager and ask them to resolve the situation. If this does not succeed then you could bring an employment tribunal claim for harassment.

Your employer's duty to prevent harassment by colleagues

The Equality Act says your employer has a duty to stop your colleagues from harassing you at work. This includes harassment which takes place outside work at some work-related social events and trips - for example, an office party.

If you’re harassed by one of your colleagues, you can make a claim in the employment tribunal against both your employer and your colleague.

However, if your employer can show they took all reasonable steps to stop employees from harassing one another, they won’t be responsible under the Act. But you may still be able to claim compensation against the colleague who harassed you.

Example

Several of your colleagues often make rude and inappropriate sexual comments and jokes within your earshot. You’ve complained to your manager but he’s dismissed your complaint saying it’s just banter and you need to toughen up.

This is sexual harassment and it’s your employer’s duty to stop your colleagues from harassing you. You can take action against both your employer and your colleagues.

If you’re harassed by someone else at work like a customer

Employers aren’t responsible if you’re harassed by someone else at work who’s not another employee - for example, a customer or a client.

But if you're harassed and complain about the situation to your employer and they do nothing to stop the harassment from happening then they're likely to still be responsible for the harassment. Also if the employer hasn't resolved the situation and this is because of your protected characteristic, this may amount to direct discrimination.

Example

You’re from Nigeria and you’re being repeatedly harassed by a customer who makes racist remarks whenever he comes to the shop. You’ve told your employer about it but he’s done nothing to try to stop it from happening. You could bring a claim to argue that your employer has harassed you because they've engaged in the customer's harassment by failing to protect you.

Next steps

Other useful information

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.

Acas

Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) provides free and impartial information and advice on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.

To talk to an adviser about your employment problem, call the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100.

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