The challenges of workplace harassment
Workplace harassment is perhaps the most visible and overt form of employment discrimination. While other forms - age discriminaton for example, or sex discrimination - can fly under the radar to a greater or lesser degree, harassment is much harder to miss if you are on the receiving end. And it can have a huge impact, leading to a sharp deterioration in that person's wellbeing and productivity. Responsible employers care about the welfare of their employees - but clearly productivity is a crucial consideration too. Tackling harassment effectively makes sound business sense.
But, in addition to the risk of a damaged bottom line, UK law places also a responsibility on companies to take all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment of employees. Employers can be held liable if harassment does occur.
Foot Anstey are leading business advisers across the UK, working with companies operating in multiple sectors, including retail. Their team of employment experts will provide you with detailed guidance on the most effective anti-harassment measures and policies, so you can rest assured you have taken all reasonable steps to protect both your staff and yourself. Such efforts will stand you in good stead if the worst should still happen.
How is harassment defined?
Harassment is a broad concept which can include intimidation, molestation, aggressive pressure and bullying, behaviour which can take various forms. Significant aspects of a person’s employment - promotions or pay rises for example - may depend on meeting the demands of the bully. The person’s job itself may be at risk.
Workplace harassment can be carried out by one individual or a group and be directed at a wide variety of targets. Harassment may be aimed at groups typically thought of as disadvantaged or vulnerable, such as racial miniorities, gay people, or the disabled. But it can also be targeted at members of demographics generally perceived as free from disadvantage, such as men: it all depends on the individual circumstances and on the personalities involved.
Everyone has an intrinsic right to freedom from abuse and mistreatment in the workplace, but disadvantage or discomfort does not necessarily equal harassment, although it may be discrimination. Harassment is an activity - something directed at one individual by another or a group - of sufficient severity to create an intimidating or hostile environment.
In the UK, the principal workplace workplace harassment law is the Equality Act 2010. This cites nine ‘protected characteristics’:
- Gender reassignment
- Pregnancy or the state of being a mother
- Religious belief or beliefs in general
- Marriage or civil partnership
- Sexual orientation
Bullying behaviour on the basis of any of those characteristics constitutes workplace harassment. Even if the target does not in fact possess any of those characteristics, the belief that they do is enough for bullying behaviour to be harassment under the law.
According to the legislation, harassment must:
- Violate a person's dignity.
- Create an environment that is degrading, humiliating, hostile, intimidating or offensive for the recipient.
Arguing that such results were not an intended result of the behaviour in question is not a valid defence. For example, if a group of co-workers make repeated references to a colleague’s age or some aspect of their appearance, that person may become anxious, or feel excluded or humiliated. This would constitute workplace harassment, even if the employees making the remarks only intended their comments as jokes or teasing.
UK law on harassment can apply not only to the direct target of the behaviour but to other associated individuals. For example, the friends of someone targeted for harassment might also be bullied. The Equality Act 2010 can also apply to people who merely witness the harassment of others, if they experience the same end result - a degrading, humiliating or offensive working environment, or a violation of their dignity.
Both emotional and physical harm may result from harassment. It can be a one-off incident but more typically the behaviour occurs repeatedly over an extended period.
Typical examples of workplace harassment include:
- Excessively negative feedback.
- Denying training opportunities.
- Denying promotions or pay rises.
- Undermining a person’s position or the authority of their role - for example, by refusing to cooperate with instructions or criticising the individual to an excessive degree in meetings.
- Allocating an excessive workload.
- Spreading malicious gossip.
- Excluding the harassed person from social events.
- Making humiliating, offensive or inappropriate posts about the person on social media.
Although harassment is principally a verbal, face-to-face phenomenon, it can also be conducted via social media, email, phone - or even by letter.