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6th February 2018

Harassment at work: 5 things you need to know

1. Know what to look for – types of inappropriate behaviour

According to the European Commission there are five categories of sexual harassment

  • Non-verbal (e.g. suggestive gestures, emails containing pornography or nudity)
  • Physical (unnecessary or inappropriate touching e.g. a hand on the knee or lower back)
  • Verbal (e.g. unwelcome sexual advances, propositions or innuendo, comments about clothing or physical appearance)
  • Intimidation (e.g. offensive comments about dress/appearance/performance)
  • Sexual blackmail (e.g. requests or demands for sexual favours)

It can take place in a range of different locations, including online, in your usual place of work or another workplace (e.g. a client or patient’s home or workplace), on a work trip, or at a work social event such as a Christmas party or a team away day. Anyone can experience sexual harassment, although women are more likely to experience it than men. The fact that men are less likely to experience sexual harassment may exacerbate feelings of shame or embarrassment when it does happen.


2. Banter vs bullying – understand the fine line

Banter, such as playful and friendly teasing or remarks can have a positive effect, if welcomed, non-threatening and appreciated by the recipient. For example, it can be used to establish and maintain friendships, promote bonding and affiliation between people. If banter is perceived as offensive or unwelcomed by the recipient, it can often lead to complaints of harassment or bullying. There is some consensus that certain topics are unacceptable for teasing or ‘banter’, including appearance, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, race, and other things that the receiver can’t control. How individuals interpret the teasing (banter) they receive also depends on their gender, personality, popularity, and previous experiences with teasing. Banter is not an excuse for inappropriate or unwelcome behaviour and is not a legal defence (a tribunal will not accept “it was just a joke”).


3. It’s in the eye of the receiver

Perception and interpretation are what matters when it comes to harassment. Regardless of the intention (whether comments or actions are meant as a ‘joke’), if someone feels offended, degraded, humiliated or intimidated by remarks made about a protected characteristic, then it is harassment. This is the case even if the behaviour is not directed at them e.g. hearing comments being made about someone else can still cause offence. Just because you don’t mean to have this effect, or you would not feel this way yourself does not make it ok.


4. Don’t avoid it and hope it will go away

Use an effective response to stop inappropriate or unwanted behaviour. Avoidance is the least effective yet most common method of response. Ignoring it, treating it as a joke or avoiding the person are not effective ways to end harassment. Just discussing it with a friend won’t prevent it either but may help you to deal with negative consequences. Confronting the person is the most effective yet least used method. Ask or tell the harasser to stop. This will also let them know where they stand if they have misinterpreted your intentions. If you don’t feel confident enough to confront them yourself, ask a trusted friend or colleague to do this for you. It’s much better to focus on the person who is the source of the unwanted behaviour, rather than blame yourself or go along with it and hope it will eventually go away.


5. Isn’t it just political correctness?

No, it’s the law. The legal definition of harassment is ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.’ This means that if you behave in a way which makes someone else feel intimidated, humiliated, offended or violated because of their sex, race, age etc, then you have harassed them. Employers have a legal duty of care to protect employees from physical and psychological harm, which includes bullying, harassment and discrimination. However, individuals can also be held personally liable for discrimination against another person, so next time you engage in ‘banter’ think about how the other person might interpret it, how much it could cost you and if you are asked to stop, then stop.


The workplace does not have to be an environment where no one can have fun or make jokes (as this can help build relationships) but it is important to be aware of each other’s behaviour and the impact it could have on people. It is also important to understand other types of harassment, discrimination, victimisation etc and how tolerating or turning a blind eye in one area could be seen as a signal that this is acceptable, which can open the door for other forms of abuse or inappropriate behaviour.

You can read more on the impact of harassment on both staff and organisations here.