Work harassment: What is the law?

  • Employee Conduct
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

The Equality Act 2010 covers laws for harassment. An understanding of them is essential for your business—and our expert guide explains what you need to know.

Since the rise of the #MeToo movement in October 2017, harassment at work, and how to prevent it, remains a significant topic of conversation in the modern workplace.

However, harassment takes many forms and isn’t solely related to gender issues. So it’s essential your business understands the full implications.

You can contact us on 0800 028 2420 for immediate assistance on this issue. You can also refer to our 24/7 employment law services for further guidance.

Or you can read our guide for insights on how to prevent this potentially damaging issue from occurring in your organisation.

What is harassment at work?

It’s defined by law 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.
  • Offensive environment for that individual.

Fundamentally, it’s important to not get too caught up in a debate over bullying vs harassment at work.

While bullying is a serious issue you should always prohibit, and is similar to harassing behaviour, harassment is a separate form of conduct.

It relates to the protected characteristics of equality law and can result in a costly discrimination claim.

The issue with harassment at work in the UK is it doesn’t need to be the intention of the perpetrator to create such an environment.

The main criteria up for judgement is the effect it had on the victim. In short, any individual who believes they were subject to harassment at work can seek to bring a claim.

Work harassment laws are covered un the Equality Act 2010. They dictate that it may be of a sexual nature or have a connection to the protected characteristics of:

  • Transgender status.
  • Religion or beliefs.
  • Sexual orientation.

Harassment at work examples include:

  • Offensive jokes, rude comments or gossip at work can be harassment.
  • Wolf-whistles, obscene gestures or displaying sexually suggestive posters.
  • Unnecessary or unwanted touching, patting, pinching.
  • Physical assault.
  • Pressures for sexual favours, or victimisation for the rejection of this.
  • Isolating an individual due to a particular characteristic.

Peninsula Business Services can help

Since 1983 we’ve assisted tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses with complex HR, employment law, and health & safety topics.

When running a business, finding the time to understand individual laws is difficult.

And not every business can rely on an in-house HR department, which is where an industry-leading business consultant can help you.

Request a call back for assistance on any employment law issue you currently have. We’ll be in touch as soon as possible.

How to prevent harassment at work

You need to remember you’re liable for acts of harassment in the workplace irrespective of whether it was with their “knowledge or approval”.

This means that simply trying to argue you were unaware of this conduct won’t suffice if you’re later faced with an employment tribunal claim.

To defend your business against such claims, you need to demonstrate you have robust policies and procedures in place.

You must also communicate these to all staff and managers and ensure their effectiveness faces consideration on a regular basis.

Finally, make sure all staff receive briefings and training to prevent any instances of harassment.

It’s also important that, when responding to an employee filing harassment at work, you take all accusations seriously and deal with them in line with your policies.

For an employee making a complaint, they can do so with a harassment letter at work. This will detail the issues they have with an individual in your organisation.

You should clearly explain this process in your grievance procedures policy so your members of staff know what to do.

The letter should have a time and date—the employee should address it to a suitable line manager and explain their concerns in the letter.

To assist in responding to and preventing workplace harassment, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently released an 80-page guidance document, outlining the best methods for businesses to implement.

Although it’s not mandatory to follow this guidance, tribunals will take failure to do so into account.  

Need our help?

Get in touch with us for immediate assistance with any bullying or harassment issues at your workplace: 0800 028 2420.


Got a question? Check whether we’ve already answered it for you…

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