Harassment at work

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Health Assured team

09 July 2021

Broadly similar and just as unpleasant, bullying and harassment at work has no place in society.

When there’s a negative, aggressive culture, you’ll find that a lot of employees suffer mental and physical ill-health. These issues all contribute to absenteeism, low productivity, and high turnover.

The Equality Act 2010 also outlines many workplace harassment laws, which come alongside unlimited fines. This can compound any business disruptions you face.

Read more to find out what harassment is in law, how to spot the signs of it and how to combat it in the workplace.

What is classed as harassment in the workplace?

It is unwanted conduct that makes someone feel intimidated or offended.

We often mention bullying in the same breath. But there are essential differences.

Bullying at work itself technically isn’t illegal. You should have your own internal policies relating to bullying and employee conduct. That way you can handle potential disciplinary procedures or dismissals fairly.

But employment law doesn’t see bullying as illegal, nor will they issue fines.

It crosses the line into being illegal when it relates to a protected characteristic:

  • Age.
  • Sex.
  • Disability.
  • Gender reassignment.
  • Marriage or civil partnership.
  • Pregnancy and maternity.
  • Race.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sexual orientation.

Any unfair treatment based on these characteristics is classed as discrimination. For it to count legally, the unwanted behaviour must either:

  • Violate the person's dignity, whether or not it was intended.
  • Create a hostile environment for the person, whether or not it was intended.

Harassment examples

There are so many types of workplace harassment and so many interpretations.

With a more thorough understanding of the types, you’re better equipped to help victims deal with their experiences or spot it happening in the workplace.

Harassment can happen in several ways, such as:

  • Face-to-face.
  • By letter.
  • By email.
  • By phone.

The fundamental way to separate the types of harassment is by looking at discriminatory harassment and personal harassment.

Discriminatory harassment

All workplace harassment is discriminatory. But to make it unlawful (unlike personal harassment) it’s defined by its intentions, instead of how it’s carried out.

Here, the harasser targets a victim because they’re a member of a protected class.

This includes:

  • Sexual harassment.
  • Racial harassment.
  • Gender harassment.
  • Disability-Based Harassment.
  • Age-Based Harassment.
  • Religious Harassment.
  • Sexual Orientation-Based Harassment.
  • Third-party harassment.

Personal harassment

This is when it’s not based on one of the protected classes (such as race, gender, or religion).

This means that, the intent isn’t based on protected characteristics. This doesn’t mean that any of the characteristics can’t be involved, just that they aren’t the focus of the behaviour.

Simply, it’s bullying in its most basic form and it’s not illegal but can be damaging nevertheless.

  • Physical harassment.
  • Verbal harassment.
  • Psychological harassment.
  • Power harassment.
  • Spreading rumours.
  • Treating someone unfairly.
  • Denying opportunities.

Effects of workplace harassment

As well as causing distress to your workforce, it can lead to problems like absenteeism, high staff turnover and a decrease in productivity.

Those who suffer from this unwanted attention can have poor mental and physical wellbeing. This can be shown through medical symptoms like:

If tribunals find an employer guilty of breaching the Equality Act, they are liable for damages:

  • A lower band of £900 to £8,600.
  • A middle band of £8,600 to £25,000.
  • An upper band of £25,700 to £42,900.

The upper band makes up the most serious cases — e.g., where there has been a lengthy campaign of harassment. With the most exceptional cases capable of exceeding £42,900.

Hopefully, legal action will only be a last resort. In our post on mental health discrimination, we outline routes for fixing the problem. Informally resolving the issue, issuing a formal grievance, and using the Acas conciliation service are all options.

There are some complexities—the act won’t cover volunteers, for example. Citizens Advice supplies a great deal of information on the complexities.

How to prevent workplace harassment and bullying


If you’re an employer, then this advice is doubly important. Your duty of care for your staff means you need to be aware of and on top of potential harassment issues.

It’s not just because of legal and financial repercussions. Harassment and discrimination in the workplace are incredibly serious and more than capable of destroying a reputation and bringing a company down.

Putting together a behaviour policy will help stop these problems. Your policy should include:

  • A commitment statement clarifying zero-tolerance in your business.
  • Outline the harassment laws at work with examples.
  • Methods for reporting harassment.
  • A statement explaining how you’ll deal with this behaviour, including timescales for action.
  • The steps your organisation takes to prevent it.
  • Responsibilities of senior staff.
  • A commitment to confidentiality.
  • How you plan to implement, review, and check the policy.

It’s also important to set a good example for your employees. Regardless of any policy, if staff see management treating others negatively, they’re more likely to follow suit.

Support your employees with Health Assured

Let’s talk about how Health Assured’s EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) can support you and your business. With a vast number of certified counsellors and wellbeing specialists, we can help create a financial wellbeing strategy for your employees.

With our EAP, you get access to our counsellors 24/7, 365 and our mental, physical, and financial wellbeing resources.

We also have a brilliant new mental, physical, and financial wellbeing app. It supplies proactive wellbeing tools and engaging features to enhance our existing services.

We’ve built the app’s features from the ground up to improve the user’s mental, physical, and financial health by using personal metrics, personalised content and four-week plans to set goals and celebrate achievements.

Arrange a call back from a workplace wellbeing expert today on 0844 891 0352.

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