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):
- gender reassignment
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
Pregnancy and maternity are different from the other protected characteristics, in how the law on harassment treats them.
The law on harassment does not cover marriage and civil partnership.
As with bullying, the person being harassed might feel emotions including:
- made fun of
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
For example, a group of men 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.
Harassment can include:
- a serious one-off incident
- repeated behaviour
- spoken or written words, imagery, graffiti, gestures, mimicry, jokes, pranks, physical behaviour that affects the person
It's still against the law even if the person being harassed does not ask for it to stop.
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 a protected characteristic and is upset by it
Harassment because of sex
Under the law, there's also protection against:
- harassment because of a person's sex, for example a male boss regularly putting down a female employee because she's a woman
- sexual harassment, which is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. This can be written, verbal, imagery, physical or sexual assault. For example, someone making sexual comments or trying to touch someone against their will
- being treated unfairly because they've received or stood up against these types of harassment
What you can do
It can be easier to start by talking with your employer or someone senior at work to try and resolve the problem.
If you do not feel comfortable doing this or the issue is very serious, you can raise a formal grievance.
Any employee can report a harassment issue they've seen or heard at work, even if it's not directed at them.
You can also look at your workplace's policy on discrimination and harassment, if there is one. This should say how your employer handles discrimination and harassment complaints.