Understanding workplace harassment

There should be zero tolerance of workplace bullying and harassment in all its forms.

This guide covers:

Differences between bullying and harassment

The terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ are often used interchangeably. However, the former does not appear in the Equality Act 2010, which focuses specifically on harassment.

Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, or an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Harassment is defined in section 26 of the Equality Act 2010 as unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic and which violates a person’s dignity or has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

The relevant protected characteristics are:

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

Workplace harassment

These behaviours may be displayed by an individual towards another individual or involve groups of people. 

Any unwanted behaviour which affects the dignity of individuals or groups in the workplace may constitute harassment, and, as such, should never be allowed or tolerated.

There does not need to be a pattern of persistent unwanted behaviour for it to amount to harassment. Isolated incidents might be considered harassment if the action is demeaning or humiliating to the recipient.

Harassment can be verbal or non-verbal and need not happen face-to-face. Behaviours might include but are not limited to:

  • gossip or spreading malicious rumours
  • ridiculing or demeaning someone
  • inappropriate content or tone of an email, social media or other digital communication
  • overbearing supervision or misuse of power or position
  • making threats about job security without justification
  • constant criticism or deliberately undermining someone
  • preventing career progression by intentionally blocking promotion or development opportunities
  • exclusion or victimisation
  • unwelcome sexual advances, including touching, standing too close, the display of offensive materials, asking for sexual favours, or making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected.

It is important to recognise that the perpetration of harassment via electronic means of communications such as social media and email has significantly increased over time, so due attention should be paid to ensuring this dimension is fully tackled when addressing workplace bullying and harassment.

Case study
You consider yourself a hard worker and you always work your hours, but work-life balance is important to you. You try to leave the office before 7pm and do not check emails over the weekend. Your line manager constantly criticises you and says you are not putting in the hours required to achieve results. One day your line manager tells you the real problem is that you do not have a good work ethic. From that moment onward, you notice your line manager is excluding you from development opportunities that could really benefit your career.

Do you think you might be experiencing harassment?

It is indeed possible that in this scenario your manager may be guilty of harassing you. They have unrealistic expectations and instead of trying to negotiate a better way of working with you, they adopt behaviours that have a negative impact on your career opportunities. At this stage, if you feel you are able to, it may be advisable to bring these concerns directly to your manager. If this brings no changes, you may have grounds for a harassment claim.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can be verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct including unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate touching, forms of sexual assault, sexual jokes, displaying pornographic photographs or drawings, or sending email with material of a sexual nature.

(Dependent on the type of harassment, legal action can also be pursued as a criminal or civil matter using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Such cases would include stalking, unwanted calls, texts, letters and online abuse including on social media).

Case study
One of your colleagues is showing pictures on their mobile phone to a group of co-workers. From across the office, you overhear some of their remarks about the pictures and you find them inappropriate. You choose not to say anything there and then but over the next few days you realise that those comments are making you uncomfortable around that colleague and this is affecting your ability to perform well in the workplace.

Do you think you might have experienced harassment?

We would need more details to make a definitive decision, but this scenario could well amount to harassment as your colleague’s behaviour was inappropriate and perceived by you as offensive, although you were not directly targeted.

You could therefore have good grounds to bring a harassment claim against your colleague. Even if you decide not to make a formal complaint, it is still recommended that you raise your concern informally with your colleague (or if you do not feel confident enough to do so, with HR or your colleague’s line manager) so the inappropriate behaviours can be addressed and the likelihood of these happening again significantly reduced.

Men and women can be both victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment and their experiences can differ. Studies have found that men who complain of sexual harassment tend to be believed less, liked less and punished more. 

However, evidence continues to suggest that women are more likely to be sexually harassed, and perpetrators of more serious harassment tend to be male (McDonald, P and Charlesworth, S. (2015) Workplace sexual harassment at the margins, Work, employment and society, pages 1 to 17).

52% of women have experienced sexual harassment (TUC & Everyday Sexism project, 2016).
Harassment can also be combined with homophobic, racist or other identity-based harassment; all of which are forms of illegal discrimination within the Equality Act 2010.

A one-off incident can amount to workplace harassment and there is no requirement that the recipient makes known to the other person that the behaviour is unwanted.

Of course, each situation will need to be considered on its own merit as there might be occasions in which behaviours perceived as unwanted can be in fact justifiable given the specific circumstances. What matters is that no allegation is unduly ignored and dismissed.

Read our guidance for employers


Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law: 0300 123 1100

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC): Provides an overview of sexual harassment in the workplace and further signposting to relevant support.

Equality Advisory and Support Service: Advises and assists individuals on issues relating to equality and human rights, across England, Scotland and Wales. Helpline: 0808 800 0082

LawCare (charity, independent from professional bodies): Supports and promotes good mental health and wellbeing in the legal community throughout the UK. Free, independent and confidential Helpline: 0800 279 6888

Solicitors Regulation Authority: Regulatory and professional ethics guidance on conduct issues: 0370 606 2577

Email the Law Society's Diversity and Inclusion team at diversityteam@lawsociety.org.uk.

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