Workplace harassment

16 April 2019

Employers should address all forms of harassment complaints as soon as they become aware of them. Under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 - 2015, employers will be liable for workplace harassment against an employee if they didn’t take steps to prevent it.

If you don’t take action to prevent workplace harassment, you could be at direct risk of facing legal proceedings, compensation claims, and business disruption.

Our guide shows how equality legislation defines workplace harassment in Ireland. We’ll also discuss the benefits of a workplace harassment policy, and how you can help workers confidently raise harassment complaints.

Workplace harassment in Ireland

The law on workplace harassment is found in anti-discrimination legislation. The Employment Equality Acts define harassment as ‘unwanted conduct’ relating to any of the nine discriminatory grounds that has…

“purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person”.

There are nine characteristics that are specifically protected under the Employment Equality Acts. Harassment in the workplace relating to any of the following is prohibited under the legislation:

  1. Gender
  2. Race
  3. Religion
  4. Sexual orientation
  5. Age
  6. Disability
  7. Civil status
  8. Family status
  9. Membership of the Traveller community.

All forms of harassment can negatively impact employees personally and the workplace environment. Employers need to assess their operations to see what types of workplace harassment are risks to the business. Once you’ve identified the risks, you need to implement measures to prevent harassment to limit your exposure to vicarious liability for any staff misconduct.

The consequences of workplace harassment

Employers can face significant consequences if they don’t take steps to prevent workplace harassment.

Harassment, discrimination, and the consequences of sexual harassment in the workplace can all collectively affect your productivity, employees, and the business’s reputation.

Here are some of the negative consequences of harassment for both the employer and employees:

  • Legal costs and compensation claims.
  • Effects on business productivity and brand reputation.
  • Mental and physical health effects (like stress reactions, sleep disorders, and lowered self-esteem).
  • Toxic work-environment which can affect worker-retention and hiring numbers.

Common examples of workplace harassment

Here are examples of what qualifies as workplace harassment.

  • Discriminatory harassment: against race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
  • Personal harassment: inappropriate remarks, offensive jokes, humiliation, and intimidation all made directly about the victim
  • Physical harassment: can range from threatening behaviour, destroying property, to even physical assault.
  • Psychological harassment: affects a victim’s mental wellbeing and can significantly affect professional and personal life.
  • Power harassment: harasser exercises their power by harassing those at a lower working-level.
  • Online harassment: like cyberbullying and online harassment through social media can take place through workplace digital platforms.
  • Retaliation harassment: harasser seeks revenge and aims to prevent the victim from behaving in such a way again.  
  • Sexual harassment: unwanted sexual advance, behaviour, and conduct. Forms of sexual harassment in the workplace can include sharing sexual pictures, making sexual comments, and invading someone’s personal space in a sexual way.
  • Verbal harassment: include threatening, shouting, insulting, or cursing – both privately and in public.

Reasons why employees don’t report workplace harassment

Victims of workplace harassment sometimes choose not to formally report workplace harassment incidents for several reasons. Fear of reporting is more common in sensitive claims based on discriminatory and sexual harassment in the workplace. Reasons for not reporting can range from:

  • Fear of being fired
  • Lack of support
  • Retaliation and backlash
  • Work reputation
  • Lack of anonymity
  • Victimisation (especially victims of sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, etc).

The Workplace Relations Commission will take a particularly dim view of any employer that does not have robust reporting procedures in place to reassure staff that any complaints will be properly managed.

Workplace harassment policy

Employers need to put business policies in place that prevent bullying, sexual harassment, and harassment in the workplace.

The Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment requires employers to adopt, implement and monitor a comprehensive, effective and accessible policy on harassment and sexual harassment.

A workplace harassment policy assures victims that you will fully investigate all claims, and legal proceedings will follow where there is evidence that harassment has taken place. The policy should also outline how complaints will be handled to secure confidence in harassment reporting procedures.

A workplace harassment policy should outline how to stop workplace harassment by including:

  • A clear definition of workplace harassment
  • An outline of what behaviour is unacceptable
  • A clear procedure for dealing with all such claims as promptly as possible
  • Zero-tolerance for workplace harassment and other forms of misbehaviour
  • Thorough investigations and appropriate consequences for any guilty parties

How to stop workplace harassment?

Many workers have experienced workplace harassment in their careers - it can be demeaning, abusive, and can come from colleagues, management, and even clients. 

When dealing with workplace harassment, remember that employees' wellbeing is at substantial risk if you don’t manage it properly. Especially with bullying and harassment in the workplace claims.  

Some cases of workplace harassment could amount to gross misconduct and may require summary dismissals.

If a victim raises a formal complaint of workplace harassment, you must follow formal procedures to manage it.

Failing to properly manage a harassment complaint could even lead to constructive dismissal claims under unfair dismissals legislation or negligence claims for failing to prevent a reasonably foreseeable workplace risk– leading to compensation claims and business damage. Here are the minimum requirements for processing workplace harassment complaints under the Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment:

  • Use plain language that is easily understandable by all employees
  • Set time limits for every stage of the investigation
  • Confirm that the complaints procedure will not affect the complainant’s right to make a claim under the Employment Equality legislation
  • Confirm that the employee making the complaint will not be victimised for doing so
  • Confirm the disciplinary consequences if a complaint is found to be well established
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Explore the possibility of resolving the complaint informally
  • Use a formal investigation and resolution procedure for complaints that cannot be resolved informally

Some victims of harassment may require further support like counselling, medical assistance, or support delivered through an Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).

Peninsula Ireland can provide information and support on harassment

Employers need to have a zero-tolerance approach to all forms of harassment and discrimination at work. Workers should be confident in raising complaints and believe that any issues will be dealt with appropriately.

Peninsula Ireland can help you with preventing workplace harassment. We can offer additional information on policies, training and complying with regulations issued by workplace health and safety authorities. And we can also help you spot the warning signs for harassment.

Peninsula also provides an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to support employees who may have problems they don’t feel comfortable talking to their employer about.

Peninsula Ireland clients get access to 24/7 HR consultation with our employment specialists. And if you are not yet a client, you can still enjoy free advice from one of our business experts. Simply call us on 0818 923 923

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