Workplace harassment and bullying can cause employees mental and physical harm. According to the Government Equalities Office, around 29% of UK workers have experienced at least one form of sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous 12 months. The CIPD found that 38% of harassment targeted sex characteristics, and 23% targeted age characteristics of employees, customers and others in the workplace.
What is harassment in the workplace in the UK?
Behaviour that offends or intimidates an individual or group is considered harassment in the workplace.
This behaviour can have severe consequences for employees and an organisation if not addressed. Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment targeting protected characteristics is unlawful, and it’s the employer’s duty to protect their employees at work. Failure to do so can result in legal claims and fines.
Understanding the different kinds of workplace harassment is essential in knowing how to handle harassment in the workplace as a manager.
Our IOSH Approved physical and verbal abuse, bullying and harassment awareness course aims to provide employees at all levels within an organisation with the essential information they need to understand accepted definitions, signs and symptoms that victims might display and what actions to take.
Signs of harassment in the workplace
Harassment can take various forms, including:
- Verbally – rude and aggressive language, shouting, slurs, jokes, spreading rumours.
- Physically – sexual touching, unwanted physical contact, violence, hand gestures, touching belongings/property.
- Digitally – Cyberbullying on social media, unwanted phone calls and messages, fake social accounts.
- Visually – Sharing offensive or sexual imagery.
Many cases of workplace harassment in the UK involve a combination of the above.
Harassment may happen in front of others or in private without witnesses. It can involve a group of people (either targeted or harassing) or may occur on a one-to-one basis.
Common targets for harassment
Harassment consists of a variety of behaviours and actions that intimidate or distress an individual. It may target the following protected characteristics:
- Gender reassignment
- Sexual orientation
Racial harassment involves discrimination and offensive behaviour based on an individual’s race, skin colour, country of origin, or ancestry. Behaviours that are considered harassment are:
- Racial slurs
- Racial jokes
- Racial insults
- Degrading comments about appearance or background
- Imitation of accents
- Intolerance of different beliefs, clothing or customs
According to a 2020 Sexual Harassment Survey, 20% of all UK adults have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace within the last 12 months. Sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual advances and attention that causes discomfort.
Examples of sexual harassment behaviour include:
- Sharing sexual photos.
- Inappropriate and unwanted sexual touching.
- Inappropriate sexual gestures.
- Invading personal space in sexual ways.
- Sexual comments, questions and jokes.
One of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, age-based harassment is discriminative. It can include:
- Exclusion from activities such as meetings and social gatherings with other employees.
- Insults that refer to someone’s age, such as being too young or too old.
- Treated and criticised unfairly because of age such as being too old or too young for a role.
One in 20 employees say they’ve experienced workplace discrimination related to their age, a CIPHER survey reported.
Sexual orientation harassment
Harassment of sexual orientation involves hostile or intimidating behaviour regarding the sexual orientation of an employee. Types of behaviour may include:
- Derogatory language.
- Homophobic jokes and slurs.
- Sexual touching, gestures and jokes.
- Inappropriate questions about sexual orientation.
The harassment may target an individual employee or a group. For example, an employee may openly and repeatedly comment on their disapproval of a specific sexual orientation knowingly in front of others who identify as such.
A CIPHR survey found that more than 1 in 20 UK adults has experienced gender-based discrimination at work, with 4.7% reporting that they have been refused a job because of their gender. Gender and sex-based harassment may involve:
- Degrading comments about gender.
- Making comments or jokes about stereotypes.
- Unequal pay.
- Joking about a man doing a woman’s job or vice versa.
- Denying certain opportunities due to gender, such as not promoting women for leadership roles.
Preventing harassment in the workplace and employer responsibilities
Employers must ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees.
Failure to do so, can result in tribunal claims and payment for damages or even criminal prosecution. A CIPHER analysis found that 12% of employment tribunals were related to age discrimination, and nearly 10% were related to sex and disability.
Your organisation can take the following steps to encourage a positive and healthy work environment:
- Awareness training for all employees, including managers and supervisors.
- Have clear guidelines on acceptable behaviour in the workplace.
- Have clear policies in place for reporting harassment and investigating claims, treating each one carefully and seriously.
- Implement disciplinary action to ensure the individual responsible has faced appropriate consequences.
- Offer counselling to allow employees access to support while ensuring complete confidentially.
Set clear expectations for employee behaviour, and ensure managers and supervisors set a good example. Create a workplace environment where employees are comfortable enough to bring up any conflicts and issues without judgement or fear of reprisal.