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Harassment and bullying

Harassment and bullying is covered by three pieces of legislation: the Equality Act 2010, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Key points

Equality Act 2010
  • Harassment related to a protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation) is unlawful. 
  • Harassment occurs where unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, or where a person is treated less favourably because he or she has either submitted to, or rejected, harassment which has this purpose or effect.
  • Harassment can take many forms including: verbal and written, electronic and mobile phone communications (for example, Facebook postings and texts), physical contact, display of offensive material, intimidation (for example pressure for sexual favours) and intrusion (for example stalking).
  • Employers are liable for acts of harassment carried out by their employees ‘in the course of employment’, regardless of whether the employer knew or approved of an employee’s actions.
  • An employer can defend a harassment claim by showing that all reasonable steps were taken to prevent harassment occurring.

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

  • It is a criminal offence for a person inside or outside the workplace to pursue a course of conduct, on at least two occasions, which he or she knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment.
  • The offence carries a fine of up to £5,000 or imprisonment for up to six months, or where there’s a fear of violence, up to five years in prison, and/or an unlimited fine.
  • Where the act of harassment is closely connected with the employment relationship, there may also be a civil claim for damages against the harasser and the employer.


  • Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, or an abuse or misuse of power, which undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures the recipient.
  • Bullying behaviour can be obvious, for example shouting at a colleague in public, or less obvious, for example setting up a co-worker to fail by imposing impossible deadlines.
  • Employers can be liable for bullying where it breaches the implied contractual term of trust and confidence (breach of contract or constructive dismissal claim),  or the common law duty of care (personal injury claim) or constitutes a criminal offence. 

Recent developments

Consultation on sexual harassment at work

In July 2019, the government released a consultation looking at whether the current sexual harassment laws provide sufficient protection against this unlawful behaviour in the workplace. The consultation is encouraging interested parties to submit their experiences and views on how to:

  • make sure employers are taking all steps to prevent harassment occurring
  • strengthen and clarify the law to ensure employers understand they need to protect staff against harassment from clients, customers and other third parties.

The consultation also addressed whether interns and volunteers are sufficiently protected and whether the time limit to submit a harassment claim to the employment tribunal should be extended.

The consultation closed October 2019.

Statutory Code of Practice on sexual harassment to be introduced

Following the Equalities and Women Committee's review of sexual harassment in the workplace, the government's response confirms that they will consult on the introduction of a statutory Code of Practice on sexual harassment. The Code will be used to help understanding of, and demonstrating proactive action in relation to, the reasonable steps to prevent harassment occurring at work. A mandatory uplift on compensation will not be introduced alongside the Code, and the government will monitor how tribunals take account of the Code in future compensation awards.

Further actions confirmed by the government include:

  • a consultation to review the best method of strengthening and clarifying laws on third party harassment
  • working with bodies such as Acas to raise sexual harassment awareness
  • capturing data in relation to the extent and nature of workplace sexual harassment at least every three years
  • including the Equality and Human Rights Commission as a ‘prescribed person’ for the purposes of whistleblowing protection
  • consulting on the regulation and explanation of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and the enforcement of misuse.

It has not yet been confirmed when these steps will be taken.

In January 2020, the Equality and Human Rights Commission released guidance offering practical examples of how to respond to issues of harassment in the workplace.