Handling a bullying, harassment or discrimination complaint at work

Understanding bullying, harassment and discrimination

As an employer or manager, you should do all you can to try to prevent and stop bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation at work.

These types of unfair treatment can be experienced in different ways. For example, depending on the type of treatment, it might:

  • be a regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident
  • happen face to face, on social media, in emails or phone calls
  • be spoken or written words, imagery, graffiti, gestures, jokes, pranks or unwanted physical behaviour
  • happen in the workplace or at work social events
  • not always be obvious or noticed by others

If your employee feels they're being treated unfairly, it's important to understand whether they might be experiencing:

  • bullying
  • discrimination
  • harassment
  • victimisation

Bullying

Bullying is behaviour from a person or group that's unwanted and makes someone feel uncomfortable, including feeling:

  • frightened
  • less respected or put down
  • made fun of
  • upset

Examples of bullying in the workplace could include:

  • spreading a false rumour about someone
  • putting someone down in meetings
  • not allowing someone to go on training courses, but allowing everyone else to
  • giving someone a heavier workload than everyone else
  • excluding someone from team social events

Sometimes bullying is classed as harassment, which is against the law.

Harassment

By law, harassment is when bullying or unwanted behaviour is related to any of the following (known as 'protected characteristics' under the Equality Act 2010):

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Pregnancy and maternity are different from the other protected characteristics, in how the law on harassment treats them.

As with bullying, the person being harassed might feel:

  • disrespected
  • frightened
  • humiliated
  • made fun of
  • offended
  • threatened

For it to count as harassment, the unwanted behaviour must have either:

  • violated the person's dignity, whether it was intended or not
  • created a hostile environment for the person, whether it was intended or not
Example
A group of people at work keep making offensive comments about a team member's age. This is making them feel humiliated and anxious about coming to work. This is likely to be harassment because of the team member's age.

The law on harassment also applies to:

  • a person being harassed because they are thought to have a certain protected characteristic when they do not
  • a person being harassed because they're linked to someone with a certain protected characteristic
  • a person who witnesses harassment because of someone else's protected characteristic and is upset by it

The law on harassment does not cover marriage and civil partnership.

Discrimination

By law, discrimination is when someone's treated unfairly because of any of the following:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage or civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

These are known as 'protected characteristics'. It's against the law to treat someone unfairly because of any of them, except in very rare circumstances.

For example, if someone is turned down for a job or promotion because of their sexual orientation it's likely to be discrimination.

Find out more about discrimination.

Victimisation

Victimisation is when someone is treated unfairly because they made or supported a complaint to do with a 'protected characteristic', or someone thinks they did or might do.

Example
Cameron makes a sexual harassment claim against their boss. Cameron's colleague Alex gives evidence as a witness to support Cameron's claim. After that, their boss starts treating Alex unfairly.

Your responsibility as an employer

As an employer, you should do all you can to try to prevent bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation happening in the first place.

Anyone who harasses, victimises or discriminates against someone at work is responsible for their own actions. But as an employer, you can be responsible too – this is called 'vicarious liability'. By law, you must do everything you reasonably can to protect staff from harassment, discrimination and victimisation. This covers:

  • employees and workers
  • contractors and self-employed people hired to personally do the work
  • job applicants

You also have a responsibility – a 'duty of care' – to look after the wellbeing of your employees. If you do not do this, and your employee feels they have no choice but to resign because of it, you could face a claim of constructive dismissal.

Find out about preventing harassment and discrimination by improving equality, diversity and inclusivity in your workplace.

If your employee raises an issue about bullying, harassment or discrimination

You should look into any complaint of bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation and take it seriously.

If you do not, the problem might be raised as a formal grievance later, or lead to an employment tribunal if it's not resolved.

The type of treatment someone has experienced and the impact it's had on them can affect legal options, including:

  • whether it's possible for them to make a claim to an employment tribunal
  • the type of claim they might be able to make, for example sex discrimination or harassment because of race
  • how much money an employment tribunal might be able to award them

Taking it seriously can:

  • show you are working to make the workplace fair
  • give employees confidence to raise an issue
  • help stop and prevent unacceptable behaviour
  • prevent legal action

Find out how to look into a complaint of bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation.

Handling a bullying, harassment or discrimination complaint at work
Last reviewed