Harassment at work

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Health Assured team

09 July 2021

Employers should build a workplace free from harassment. This includes all types – from online bullying to sexual harassment.

Harassment at work is a serious issue which you must handle properly. Employees need to be able to raise issues and feel confident that they will be handled correctly.

If you don't follow anti-harassment laws or rights, you could end up facing legal claims, paying fines and losing staff.

In this guide, we'll look at what harassment is, different forms of it, and how to manage these claims.

What is harassment?

Harassment is an act of unwanted behaviour that can ruin an individual’s dignity. These acts are often degrading, humiliating, or offensive. Harassment is unlawful under UK law; we’ll look into this further on.

Employees may experience harassment from customers or their own colleagues. It can be a ‘one-off’ incident, like intimidating someone on their first day. Or a series of unwanted behaviour, like multiple phone-calls of a sexual nature.

Every employer has a duty of care to prevent harassment at work.

An employee making notes at their desk

What are the consequences of harassment at work?

Harassment and bullying are serious issues that can happen at any time. Harassment not only affects the victim, as it can have a knock-on effect on your staff and business.

Here are the consequences of harassment in the workplace:

Hostile environment

It's hard to work in a place where you feel harassed, threatened, or scared. A hostile work environment is bad for staff morale and engagement.

This type of negative behaviour easily spreads through your workforce and can be hard to fix.

Ruins work relations

A successful business needs a strong team. But when a person is harassed at work, it can ruin work relations between colleagues.

This is especially detrimental when there are issues between a co-worker and their line-manager.

Lose quality of work

When employees face harassment and bullying, it can demotivate them in all areas of their work.

Employees can find it hard to perform well or keep up with their targets. This will then affect the quality (and quantity) of their work.

In the end, the whole business suffers from a loss of productivity and income.

Decreases staff retention

If you don’t deal with harassment claims properly, employees may decide to leave. Even if they love their job, they're less likely to stay where they aren't respected.

Employees could choose to resign or leave without notice. This can add extra pressure to your remaining employees' workload. When staff retention rates start to decrease, this can affect business reputation.

Lose loyalty and respect

Often, employees feel uncomfortable at work when they're seriously harassed. They may feel ignored or devalued; and have no choice but to leave on bad terms.

But harassing behaviour doesn’t just affect the person experiencing it. It can affect other employees, and your overall workforce morale.

When employees see their colleagues experience unfair treatment they may lose loyalty and respect for the business.

In the end, you can't grow a business successfully if your workforce is unhappy and dissatisfied.

An employee with his head in his hands

What types of harassment are there?

Workplace harassment comes in many different forms. A person could be harassed emotionally, mentally, and even physically.

Here are different types of harassment at work:

Discriminatory harassment

This is when a person suffers from unwanted conduct due to a protected characteristic. This applies to all the different types mentioned below. For example, being harassed for their national origin, gender reassignment, or age group.

Online harassment

This is when a person experience harassment through digital spaces.

Harassment related to online platforms is also known as cyberbullying. For example, a worker receives racist comments from colleagues on social networking sites.

Personal harassment

This is when a person faces unfair treatment directed specifically at them. For example, an employer sets impossible deadlines for female employees and not male ones.

Physical harassment

This is when a person suffers from harassment related to physical violence or intimidating behaviour. You might need this to the police. For example, a customer makes facial expressions of violent threats to a worker.

Psychological harassment

This is when a person faces unwanted conduct that affects their mental health. For example, an employee is harassed everyday which makes them question their capability and performance.

Verbal harassment

This is when a person suffers from insulting behaviour through words. For example, an employee receives verbal threats from their manager when they don’t hit targets.

How does the law define harassment?

There isn't a specific 'harassment act' in UK law. But there are other laws that apply to it.

Victimisation and harassment all come under discrimination law. That means employers need to follow the Equality Act 2010.

The Equality Act 2010 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’.

You can find an 'intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment' in so many work areas. That's why harassment includes anything from verbal abuse to physical behaviour.

What is the difference between bullying and harassment?

People often get both bullying and harassment mixed up. Sometimes, you can use either one to describe a similarly bad situation. But when it comes to the law, there is a clear difference between the two.

Under UK law, harassment is when a person experiences unwanted behaviour or conduct. It can count as a form of discrimination, under the Equality Act 2010.

However, bullying at work is not defined in employment law. It relates to a person's individual experiences or feelings.

But bullying at work can be a grey area. That’s why it’s best to manage bullying claims on a case-by-case basis. Think about what the conduct is and how it made the victim feel.

That way, employers can manage bullying claims through reasonable steps.

Can employees report harassment claims to the Employment Tribunal?

Yes, employees can raise a harassment claim to an Employment Tribunal (ET). Meaning, a person cannot be harassed because of a ‘relevant protected characteristic’.

The Equality Act 2010 presents nine protected characteristics:

You can raise claims before joining or during a job. For example, someone may submit a claim if they face sexual harassment during an interview process.

Employees may even feel pressured to leave their job because of workplace harassment. This is called a constructive dismissal. This goes against the Equality Act law on protected characteristics.

If you’re guilty of constructive dismissal, you will face large financial penalties

But that's not all. When your business goes through tribunals, you could end up paying legal fees and losing work hours. Not to mention, their brand-name and reputation gets damaged, too.

four employees talking as they walk down the stairs

How to deal with harassment at work

Every employer must protect staff from any form of bullying and harassment.

By doing so, you'll be able to grow staff retention, morale, and loyalty. This all leads to higher business output and success.

Here are ways to deal with harassment at work:

Build a safe and friendly workplace

The first step to take is to build a safe and friendly workplace. Every employer should create a workplace built on trust and respect.

Push the idea of good behaviour through your work ethics. And be practical in preventingullying and harassment at work.

Make sure both your staff and managers follow these practices. Safety and security will lead to higher morale and retention.

Create a reporting procedure

As mentioned, harassment can take all kinds of different forms. But whatever the claim is, employees must be able to report it with confidence.

Employees can report claims through your organisation's policy and procedure. Or you can create a separate policy to tackle bullying and harassment directly.

A reporting procedure should cover:

  • What counts as harassment at work.
  • What rights and laws apply (like the Equality Act 2010).
  • What are the consequences of harassment.
  • Who can employees speak to (like the HR team).
  • How your business aims to prevent harassment.

Manage their claims fairly

It takes courage for employees to raise harassment cases.

They might be worried about job security before reporting anything. That's why it's important to ensure that every claim is managed fairly.

Talk to employees in a secure place, away from other colleagues and let them present their case fairly. After this, you can hold a proper investigation into the matter.

Once the investigations are done, make a fair and final decision. Present it either in person or through a formal letter. Avoid withholding information but only inform relevant people about the claims, like your HR department.

Support employee wellbeing

Employees feel uncomfortable when they’re harassed or bullied at work. This can continue after a claim has been resolved.

Your support doesn’t stop there. Employers should always protect staff wellbeing.

Employee wellbeing refers to physical, mental, and emotional states. Following an investigation, you may find that it’s still awkward for them to continue with their working life.

So, make sure they’re aware of wellbeing safety and services you offer. For example, counselling, therapy, and employee assistance programs (EAPs).

Employees will be able to get trusted advice, without worrying about any future impacts to their career.

a group of employees working collaborativelyan employee being excluded by their colleaguesan employee speaking to a counsellor about harassmentan employee talking to a counsellor about harassment

Get expert advice on harassment with Health Assured

Every employer should build a workplace free from discrimination, bullying, and harassment. That way, you'll be able to protect employees from any unwanted behaviour or conduct.

Creating safety and security at work means employees can feel confident when raising complaints. In the end, you'll get higher retention, engagement, and productivity.

If you neglect this, you could face discrimination or constructive dismissal claims which can lead to compensation and reputational damages.

Health Assured offers expert advice on managing harassment at work. Our employee assistance programme is available 24 hours a day, helping to manage work-related complaints. Get in touch via the helpline to speak to one of our counsellors today 0844 891 0352.

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