Harassment and bullying


Makbool Javaid, Simons Muirhead and Burton Last Modified  08 December 2015

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.