Bullying and harassment

What is meant by bullying and harassment?


Harassment - in relation to employment - has a legal definition, but bullying does not.


There is no single legal definition of bullying, but it can include:

  • offensive or insulting behaviour by another employee which makes an individual feel threatened, or taken advantage of
  • humiliation of an employee
  • less obvious ways of making an employee feel frightened or demoralised

Some common forms of bullying are:

  • verbal abuse - eg persistent taunting
  • physical violence or violent gestures
  • public humiliation of an employee

However, bullying can be more subtle, such as:

  • giving someone an impossible deadline
  • removing an employee's responsibilities and giving them more menial tasks
  • withholding information or giving false information
  • excluding them from a meeting or meetings relevant to them


Harassment on the grounds of, or in some cases related to the following is explicitly prohibited in employment and vocational training:

  • sex, including pregnancy and maternity
  • marital/civil partnership status
  • gender reassignment
  • race, including colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins
  • disability
  • religion/belief or political opinion
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • sexual harassment
  • trade union membership or non-membership
  • status as a fixed-term or part-time worker

Harassment is defined as any unwanted conduct related to these protected social identities that has the purpose or effect of either:

  • violating the dignity of an individual
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for an individual

Note that an employee can claim harassment even if the harassment was not actually directed at them, eg where a female worker overhears a female colleague being verbally harassed by a male colleague and it violates their dignity.

Sexual harassment is defined as any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of either:

  • violating an individual's dignity
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for an individual

It can also occur when an individual:

  • rejects the unwanted conduct mentioned above or unwanted conduct related to gender reassignment or sex, and
  • is treated unfairly as a result

It's important to note that, while sexual harassment is commonly committed by a man against a woman, it can also be committed by a woman against a man, by a man against another man or by a woman against another woman.

Third-party harassment

It is unlawful to allow an employee to be persistently harassed by a third party, eg a client or customer.

However, you may only be liable for such harassment if:

  • you know that the employee has been harassed in the course of their employment on at least two other occasions by a third party, and
  • you have not taken reasonable steps to stop it happening to that person again

Note that it does not matter whether the third party is the same or a different person on each occasion.

Examples of third party harassment include:

  • embarrassing or otherwise offensive jokes
  • unwelcome physical contact or sexual advances
  • the expression of racist, homophobic, sexist, sectarian etc views
  • lewd comments and innuendo
  • the sending of offensive emails, text messages, etc
  • displays of pornographic material

It is possible that some incidents of harassment may not be covered by the anti-discrimination legislation, as they may actually be incidents of bullying. However, if an employer fails to deal with any form of bullying or harassment, the victim could resign and claim constructive dismissal. Read more on the impact of bullying and harassment.

It is good practice for employers to have a bullying and harassment policy giving written examples of what is unacceptable behaviour in their organisation. See drawing up an anti-bullying and harassment policy.