What is harassment?

Last updated: 31 Jan 2024

All employees have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, in a working environment free from discrimination and harassment.

Actions or behaviours that interfere with that right, and which are unwanted and offensive to the recipient, can be construed as harassment.

It is important to keep sight of this, since behaviour that is acceptable to one person may be offensive to another. Whether or not harassment is intentional, it is its effect upon the recipient that is important.

Harassment is used either to assert or to undermine power or for personal pleasure. Harassment cases that hit the headlines are usually of a sexual or racial nature, but anyone who is perceived as different can be harassed at work.

Read more on sexual harassment at work

Types of harassment

Harassing behaviour can take many forms:

  • comments, ‘banter’, jokes, insults and language related to gender, ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or reassignment, religion, age or any other personal characteristic, that is offensive to an individual or group
  • unnecessary physical touching, horseplay or assault, including sexual assault
  • suggestive remarks, gestures and innuendo, uninvited and unwanted propositions for sexual activity, leering, whistling
  • isolating colleagues, generalising or stereotyping them because of their gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, age, colour, race or ethnic origin
  • offensive or unwanted comments about dress or physical appearance that are unrelated to the requirements of an individual’s job
  • assuming that physical disability equals mental disability – for example, speaking to a disabled person’s colleagues rather than to them, or imposing unwanted ‘assistance’ with work
  • making assumptions about an individual’s private life
  • graffiti that is racially or sexually based or refers to an individual’s personal characteristics or private life
  • displaying offensive material, including pornographic or sexually suggestive pictures, pin-ups and calendars or racially offensive objects
  • inappropriate use of email and internet sites
  • encouraging others in any of these activities.

You may be a witness to an incident of harassment. It should be reported:

  •  if you feel harassed or offended by the behaviour
  • because we all have a role in creating a working environment free from harassment – by ensuring that our own behaviour does not cause offence, by making it clear to colleagues that harassing behaviour is unacceptable, and by supporting others who suffer harassment.

Support for members

If you’re a Prospect member and you’re unsure whether a situation you’re experiencing classifies as harassment, please speak to your local representative or contact us.

Prospect members

Please call the member contact centre on 0300 600 1878 (Monday to Friday, 8:30am – 7pm) or email [email protected].

Bectu members

Please call 0300 600 1878.

All enquiries will be treated with complete confidentiality.

Download Prospect/Bectu’s – A workplace guide to dealing with sexual harassment