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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

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In the guide, we'll look at what harassment is, what the law covers, and how to deal with these claims in the workplace.

People can suffer from harassment in all kinds of circumstances - from an ex-partner, family member, or even during work.

Employers have a legal duty to ensure their staff aren't unlawfully harassed at work. This includes stalking, online bullying, and even sexual harassment.

Harassment is a serious offence that must be dealt with in the correct manner. If you fail to deal with such claims, you could face major consequences. Like, compensation claims, business disruption, and reputational damage.

In the guide, we'll look at what harassment is, what the law covers, and how to deal with these claims in the workplace.

What is harassment?

Harassment is an act of unwanted behaviour that violates a person's dignity. This type of behaviour is categorised as degrading, humiliating, and even offensive to a reasonable person.

Victims can experience harassment from customers, colleagues, and even their employer. It can take place as a 'one-off' incident, like intimidating a new worker on their first day. Or over a series of events, like making non-stop offensive jokes via emails.

Under employment law, harassment is unlawful. If a staff member chooses to report a case, you should remain cooperative and help deal with the situation correctly.

What are the consequences of workplace harassment?

Employers can face all kinds of consequences if they don't deal with workplace harassment. This behaviour doesn't just harm the victim - it can impact other colleagues, customers, and the business on a whole.

If you don't deal with workplace harassment, you could end up facing the following:

Poor employee relations

Business success is built on a solid and unified workforce. When a person is harassed by others, it can ruin their working relationship. They'll lose trust and confidence in you - which can be hard to recover from.

Decreased work

Employees are less likely to perform well if they aren't respected or cared for. They could go through distress and demotivate them - so the quality (and even quantity) of their work decreases. In turn, this ends up affecting the business's output, revenue, and reputation.

Increased staff turnover

Staff turnover starts to increase when employees no longer want to remain in their job. In the instance of harassment, staff won't feel like valued members of your business if this behaviour occurs and nothing is done to stop it. This could encourage them to leave, and other members of staff too – if they witnessed such behaviour.

Are there different types of harassment at work?

Yes, there are different types of harassment found in the workplace. Some types are more severe than others - despite that, you should deal with them in the correct manner.

Some of the most common examples of harassment at work include:

  • Discriminatory harassment: This is when a person is harassed due to a protected characteristic. For example, disability, sex, or religion.
  • Physical harassment: This is when a person faces harassment related to physical assault or violence. For example, a customer being violent to staff in a retail store. (This may count as a criminal offence and will need to be reported to the police, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997).
  • Sexual harassment: This is when a person faces threatening or unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. For example, a manager making sexual comments about their female team members. (This would be unlawful, as sex is a protected characteristic).
  • Verbal abuse: This is when a person feels threatened or uncomfortable due to words or conversations. For example, a customer making harassing comments about an employee's race.
  • Online harassment: This is when a person reads harassing comments on virtual or digital platforms. For example, colleagues making offensive jokes on online chat rooms.

What is the law on harassment?

There isn't a specific harassment act outlined under employment law. However, there are other laws that may apply to such incidents. Harassment comes under the term 'discrimination'. This is covered by the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality Act defines harassment 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’.

The Equality Act also highlights nine protected characteristics that you cannot harass a person for. These includes:

What are the legal costs of harassment in the workplace?

If a victim reports harassment, they could raise this to an employment tribunal (ET). The tribunal will look into the harassment case and decide whether there's evidence that backs up the victim's claim.

If the claim is successful, the accused party could end up paying uncapped compensation. Employers could also suffer from losing talented staff, business disruption, and reputational damages.

Can you report workplace harassment cases to the police?

Yes, a victim may decide to report harassment cases straight to the police. Some cases of abuse constitute criminal offences. This is often done when it comes to physical violence or sexual harassment.

You should have a conversation with your employee about reporting their harassment. Ensure you have specialist advice to offer them from a relevant charity. Don’t put pressure on them to make a certain decision – they do not need to tell the police if they don’t want to.

If the police decide to charge someone, they'll send the court case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The court will look into the case and decide on appropriate legal action. The court may apply an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

How to deal with harassment in the workplace

All employers have a legal duty to ensure their staff are well protected from all forms of discrimination - including harassment.

Not only is this your legal duty, it's a moral one, too. With the right action, you'll be able to encourage staff retention, morale, and loyalty. Let's take a look at how to deal with harassment in the workplace:

Create an equal opportunities policy

The first step employers should take is creating an equal opportunities policy. (You could also create a separate anti-harassment policy).

The policy is a statement that represents how your business plans to promote equality and inclusion across the workplace. It also helps employees to understand their legal rights when it comes to harassment and discrimination. Your policy should include:

  • Equal opportunities for all - regardless of protected characteristics.
  • Examples of harassment or less favourable treatment.
  • What legal rights apply (according to the Equality Act and related protected characteristics).
  • How discrimination and harassment claims are dealt with.

Present a reporting procedure

Employees should be able to report any case of harassment in the workplace - without fear of repercussion. You can solve the problem informally, or use a formal grievance procedure - but this depends on the circumstances.

They should also be able to raise them anonymously and privately. Some employees may feel that they shouldn’t complain, in case it affects their career. For example, they might fear being denied training sessions or promotions.

Employers can deal with claims related to harassment via their regular grievance procedures. Or, they can deal with them through a separate harassment process – if they have one.

Offer equality training

Sometimes, employees could face being harassed at work due to unfair or poor workplace cultures. Employers can eradicate this by offering equality training to their staff.

All employees can benefit from the training. They'll be able to acknowledge what behaviour counts as harassment; and what to do if someone did harass them during work.

It's a common practice to offer this type of training to managers only. But if you can, open it up to all employees. This will ensure all employees take part in promoting an equal, inclusive, and diverse workplace.

Build a responsible and respectful workplace

The last step involves building a workplace that's responsible and respectful towards others.

With the right attitude, your employees will know what type of conduct is expected of them. It'll also help highlight what behaviour isn't acceptable - from colleagues, customers, or the public.

Make sure you lead by example and act responsibly. Your staff will copy your characteristics, attitudes, and ethics - so become a positive role-model for them.

Does sexual harassment count as harassment?

Yes, sexual harassment does count as harassment. This includes anyone being harassed for their sex or sexual orientation.

Sexual harassment occurs when a person experiences unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It can also occur in the workplace; and it can come from managers, employees, or even customers.

Does harassment count if it happens outside of the workplace?

Yes, harassment still counts even if it happened outside of the workplace. It'll also depend on the severity of the harassing behaviour.

For example, an employee states they've been harassed by a colleague who's continuously stalking them outside of work. Even though it's happened outside of the workplace, it likely requires your involvement.

Get expert advice on harassment with Peninsula

Every employer should aim to create a workplace that's free from all forms of discrimination - including harassment. This includes behaviour that's expressed physically, verbally, or through writing.

If a person raises a claim of harassment, you should deal with it properly. Failing to do this could lead to all kinds of consequences. Like, compensation claims, business disruption, and even a criminal injunction.

Peninsula offers professional advice on harassment in the workplace. Our teams offer 24/7 HR advice which is available 365 days a year. We take care of everything when you work with our HR experts.

Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with an HR consultant today.

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