Are You Being Harassed At Work? This Is What You Can Do About It

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Uber hit the headline for all the wrong reasons last month, when it was forced to fire more than 20 employees in the wake of a company-wide investigation into claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

The investigation followed former Uber engineer Susan Fowler's sensational blog post, alleging that she had been subject to sexual harassment and discrimination ranging from the horrifying (being propositioned for sex by her boss) to the "comically absurd" (Uber's male employees were treated to leather jackets, but, according to company bigwigs, "there were not enough women in the organisation to justify placing an order," she was told).

Shockingly, a poll commissioned by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) suggests that more than 50% of women in the UK workforce have experienced sexual harassment at work. More than a third of LGBT+ workers also report that they have experienced harassment in the workplace.

Think you might be affected? Read on to find out what the law has to say about harassment at work, and what you can do about it...

What is harassment at work?

You may be experiencing workplace harassment if you experience unwanted or unwelcome behaviour which is meant to or has the effect of either violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Harassment can be spoken or written, and needn't be directed at you. For example, your colleagues may make jokes or comments to each other within your earshot which have the effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating or offensive environment.

Workplace harassment may include:

  • - emails, tweets or comments on social media
  • - physical behaviour, including gestures and facial expressions
  • - unfair treatment
  • - undermining 
  • - excluding 
  • - spreading malicious rumours
  • - withholding opportunities for training or promotion

Sexual Harassment Law and Harassment Law 

Workplace harassment is illegal under the Equality Act 2010. However, in order to be defined as harassment under UK law, the behaviour must be classified as 'unlawful discrimination'. That means the unwanted behaviour must be because of, or related to, one of the following ‘protected characteristics':

  • - sex
  • - age
  • - race
  • - disability
  • - sexual orientation
  • - gender reassignment
  • - religion or belief

If it is not related to one of these characteristics, the behaviour is defined as ‘bullying'. Bullying does not count as unlawful harassment under the Equality Act. However, if you are being bullied at work, you may still be able to take action under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Bullying which relates to pregnancy may be defined as unlawful discrimination related to sex. You may also be unlawfully harassed due to your association with someone with a protected characteristic, or because you are wrongly perceived to have a protected characteristic or treated as if you do.

Sexual Harassment Law

Sexual harassment is also illegal under the Equality Act. Sexual harassment refers to unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment could include:

  • - sexual comments or jokes
  • - emails with sexual content
  • - unwelcome sexual advances
  • - touching
  • - displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature

Harassment Examples

The Citizen's Advice Bureau gives the following examples of workplace harassment:

  • - You're being bullied at work by your manager. He's verbally abusive towards you because you're a Roma Gypsy. He also makes offensive jokes to other colleagues about Gypsies which you overhear. This is likely to be unlawful harassment related to your race.
  • - You've just started a new job. Your manager has asked you out making it clear that if you don't say yes you'll be dismissed. This is sexual harassment and is unlawful under the Equality Act.

What Can You Do About Harassment At Work?

If you are being harassed or bullied at work, you can take the following steps:

  • 1. Try to resolve the matter informally. If you don't feel comfortable speaking to the person in question face-to-face, try sending them an email explaining how their behaviour is affecting you. Keep copies of anything you send or receive, along with anything else which relates to the bullying or harassment.
  • 2. Keep a diary detailing every incident of bullying or harassment you experience.
  • 3. Speak to your manager, HR department or Trade Union representative.
  • 4. Make a formal complaint using your employer's grievance procedure.
  • 5. If you are unable to resolve the matter internally, seek advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau or call the Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) helpline on 0300 123 1100 for free, confidential advice.
  • 6. Under the Equality Act 2010, your employer must take all reasonable steps to prevent you being harassed at work. If they have taken all reasonable steps to stop the harassment, but the harassment continues, you may be able to take legal action against the person or people harassing you. If they fail to take action, you may bring legal action against both your employer and the person or people harassing you. An employment tribunal can bring a court order or injunction against your harasser and/or employer. You may also be able to claim compensation for financial or emotional loss. You must have experienced at least two incidences of harassment by the same person or group of people in order to take action against them.
  • 7. If you have been bullied at work, but it doesn't count as unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act, you may still be able to take action under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
  • Continued below...
  • 8. If the mutual trust and confidence between an employer and employee is broken, an employee may resign and claim constructive dismissal on the grounds of breach of contract at an employment tribunal. However, you must have worked for your employer for at least two years, and ensure that you have tried to resolve the situation by following the steps above. This should be a last resort.

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