In this article
If you experience bullying, harassment or discrimination at work, it can have a negative effect on your health and wellbeing. Being able to identify exactly what you are experiencing and knowing how to report any concerns you may have is an important step towards getting these issues resolved in the correct way.
Discrimination at work
The Equality Act which came into law in 2010, covers UK citizens and contains legislation designed to protect them from:
The Act outlines the nine ‘protected characteristics’ as follows:
- Gender reassignment.
- Marriage and civil partnership.
- Pregnancy and maternity.
- Religion or belief.
- Sexual orientation.
This means that if, for example, your boss was to treat you poorly in relation to the way he treats the rest of the team, you must feel that this relates to one of the protected characteristics above for it to be classed as discrimination. Essentially, you are being treated in an unfair or unjust way as a result of you having one of the Equality Act’s characteristics.
Example: An employee is undergoing gender reassignment surgery. They have to take a leave of absence for medical procedures relating to the gender reassignment. Their boss reacts to this in a worse way than they have done to other staff taking regular sickness leave and treats the employee poorly upon their return.
This could be an example of discrimination because the boss is reacting badly specifically to sickness leave regarding a protected characteristic, i.e.. gender reassignment.
Example: Your boss decides that all workers must work full-time. This could potentially be an example of sex discrimination as, statistically, many more women than men have primary caring responsibilities for their children and would therefore find it difficult to meet this expectation.
There can be some exceptions to the rule, for example a domestic violence charity may advertise for female only workers in one of their shelters.
You are protected from discrimination under the Equality Act at work and in education settings, such as schools, colleges and universities and when using public services such as the NHS.
Discrimination can be either direct or indirect.
- Direct discrimination refers to the less-favourable treatment of an individual based on a protected characteristic, for example a disabled person being refused a promotion on the sole grounds of their disability, or an employee being excluded from a social event as they wish to bring their same-sex partner.
- Indirect discrimination is where a rule or policy is in place that disproportionately affects those with a protected characteristic and puts them at a particular disadvantage.
For example, if an employer required their staff to work every weekend, this might be difficult for Christians who attend church on Sundays or those who follow the Jewish faith and observe the Sabbath. This could be an example of indirect discrimination due to religion; however, the employer has an opportunity to prove that they have a good reason for the rules they have in place. This is called objective justification.
As an employer it is important to understand the laws around discrimination. You might discriminate against someone without realising it, particularly if you enforce rules without fully considering the impact they could have on particular protected groups.
It is also important not to discriminate during the recruitment process. This includes asking candidates whether they plan to have children or asking about their relationship status.
You must also not be victimised at work, meaning that if you have reported workplace harassment or made a complaint which relates to a protected characteristic, you must not be treated badly as a consequence.
Bullying at work
The line between bullying and harassment might seem unclear, but it is important to remember that because harassment relates to people’s protected characteristics, it is in fact illegal.
Bullying itself is not necessarily illegal if the conduct falls outside of the remit of the Equality Act. This does not mean that you have to endure workplace bullying, and most places of work will have their own policies written up regarding bullying.
Although bullying is traditionally thought of as violent acts or overt threats, it can take many forms including behaviour that is designed to erode a person’s sense of self-worth. Workplace bullies often use tactics such as spreading lies or rumours, criticising a person’s work, appearance or intellect, isolating them, threatening them reduced hours or even with termination of their contract.
Bullying and harassment is not always done face to face. It may be:
- By email or phone.
- Via social media posts or videos.
- In a written letter.
- By putting up offensive or embarrassing posters or pictures in the workplace.
Due to our increased use of technology, workplace bullying is no longer confined to the workplace. It is possible for the behaviour you are experiencing to continue beyond office hours. If you experience this it is important to save it as evidence.
Harassment at work
Workplace harassment relates to poor behaviour and conduct around the nine protected characteristics as outlined in the Equality Act 2010. You are considered, under the legislation, to be experiencing harassment if someone takes part in behaviour towards you that somehow relates to one of the protected characteristics and makes you feel as if your dignity has been compromised or that the environment becomes:
- Humiliating, as a direct result of the harassment you are experiencing.
Unwanted sexual conduct can also be considered harassment, especially if the person who feels harassed starts being treated badly as a result of rejecting (or even submitting to) the unwanted sexual behaviour.
Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of workplace harassment in the UK. A recent parliamentary report has revealed that two thirds of female military personnel have experienced sexual harassment, discrimination or another form of bullying during their career.
In 2016, TUC research found that 52% of the women that they polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, with one in five reporting that the perpetrator was an authority figure or their boss.
It is thought that certain types of workplace harassment are so widespread because they are often dismissed as a joke, office banter or the victim is shamed into believing they are being oversensitive.
If you feel like you have been harassed at work, particularly if this led to you being dismissed, handing in your notice, being demoted or having to take long-term sickness absence, you should raise this with your employer immediately and you may have a legal claim.
Reporting your concerns
If you feel you have been unfairly treated at work, especially if you made a complaint and it was not resolved, you should take some legal advice. You may be able to take your former employer to an employment tribunal where a judge can hear the evidence from both parties and make an informed ruling on the matter.
There should be a complaints procedure in your colleague handbook that you can follow.
You can usually make a complaint informally by having a face-to-face meeting with your boss or supervisor, or formally by documenting your concerns in a letter.
There is no need to suffer in silence. Bullying and harassment at work can make the environment uncomfortable for everyone, decrease staff morale, lead to unnecessary absences and cause stress, depression and other physical and mental health problems.
If you have concerns about a colleague’s conduct towards you or other employees:
- Talk to your fellow workers. They may have evidence or stories of their own.
- Keep a diary of what is happening; you may require documented evidence if the case proceeds further.
- If you feel confident, speak to the person or people involved and tell them to stop.
- Speak to your line manager or HR representative about what is happening.
- Enquire about your workplace’s bullying policy and if you can have a copy.
- Speak to your Trade Union representative, if you have one.
- Escalate your concerns up the chain of command, if necessary. If your line manager does not take you seriously, you could email your area manager or CEO.
- Make a formal complaint and refer to the Equality Act if you feel you have a relevant, protected characteristic.
If you are experiencing illness or stress as a result of workplace bullying and harassment, it is important that you deal with this alongside making a complaint. It is important to look after your own health and wellbeing. Make an appointment to speak to your GP about your worries or book a session with a counsellor.
If the issue you have raised is not taken seriously or resolved adequately, despite you following your workplace complaints procedure, you can seek legal advice. You could contact the Acas helpline on 0300 123 1100 or speak to a trusted, local solicitor that understands employment law (some will offer a free half hour consultation session).
Checking to see if you are protected
You are protected by the Equality Act in the workplace whether you are an employee, former employee, apprentice, or casual or agency worker. This includes those on zero hours or without a signed contract (providing you can prove you have an agreement to work and be paid for the work).
Volunteers, illegal workers and some self-employed individuals are not covered under the Act.
If you are receiving unwanted attention at work or being made to feel upset, uncomfortable or targeted, firstly it would be helpful to assess whether you are experiencing:
If your colleagues or boss are treating you poorly or making you feel intimidated and undermined this may be an example of bullying.
If this behaviour directly relates to a protected characteristic, for example your sexual orientation, it is possible that this is harassment.
If you have made a complaint in relation to behaviour that relates to protected characteristics and are treated poorly at work as a result, this is victimisation.
If you are treated unfairly in the workplace due to one of the nine protected characteristics, for example if you feel you were overlooked for promotion or selected for redundancy due to your disability or race, you might be experiencing discrimination.
You can refer to the Equality Act itself to see if you have a protected characteristic that is relevant to the issues you are facing within the workplace. It outlines in detail, not only what the nine protected characteristics are, but also what is not covered – for example a drug or alcohol addiction does not constitute a disability.
There is a wealth of information online about discrimination and the Equality Act. Some of the language and terms can become confusing. For a more user-friendly and straight forward guide to understanding your rights and protections, you might want to refer to this booklet on the equality act.
It is always best to try to deal with the issues you are having in the workplace in line with your company’s policies initially. Your colleagues, boss or HR adviser should be able to offer help and support.
Other people who can advise you if you are being harassed, bullied, intimidated or victimised at work, include:
For employers, protecting your staff from unwanted behaviours in the workplace, as well as protecting yourself and your company from unwanted lawsuits, might feel like a daunting task. By adopting a culture of transparency and understanding, all employers can minimise instances of bullying, harassment and discrimination.
It also helps if you:
- Have clear and transparent policies available on bullying, harassment and discrimination.
- Are seen to be implementing and enforcing these policies.
- Take staff concerns seriously.
- Have an open dialogue with your team members.
- Conduct anti-bullying training and let staff know what is, and is not, acceptable in the workplace.
- Are knowledgeable – keep up to date with current legislation and lead from the top-down when it comes to positive staff interactions.
If you feel that you are being bullied or intimidated at work and that you do not fit into any of the protected categories outlined in the Equality Act, you may be covered under other legislation or by the policies within your workplace.
Bullying, harassment and discrimination in the workplace are all wrong and unacceptable. If what you are experiencing is not covered by legislation, this does not mean that you have to endure the behaviour or that there isn’t a way of dealing with it.
Bullying at work can end in disciplinary action against the perpetrator, even if you are not covered under the Equality Act, so please document and report any concerns you have in line with company policy before the situation escalates.