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A Guide to Harassment at Work in the UK

Justice - Criminal Defence Lawyers | Stuart Miller Solicitors

You may have heard the term ‘harassment at work’ being bandied about in professional development training and never really thought it would apply to you. But what happens if you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you are accused of harassing a colleague? What does the term harassment at work actually mean? And what makes it a crime? In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about harassment in the workplace. We’ll cover what the crime of harassment entails, some common examples of harassment, how harassment is punished, and where to get help with an ongoing or future case against you.

What is considered harassment at work?

If you are being accused of harassing someone at work, then it’s important that you understand exactly what you are being accused of. In England and Wales, harassment is regulated by three core pieces of legislation:

There is no formal legal definition of harassment, but piecing together these pieces of legislation and the case law on the subject, some common requirements emerge.

Generally speaking, harassment is understood as singular or repeated actions that cause a person alarm or distress or put them in fear of violence, along with any unwanted communications and contact upon a victim in a manner that could be expected to cause distress or fear in any reasonable person.

Some common examples of harassment in the workplace include:

  • making unwelcome sexual advances or comments
  • racial slurs or telling offensive jokes
  • physical assaults or unwanted touching
  • threatening someone or making them feel scared
  • spreading rumours about a person or damaging their reputation

What are the consequences of harassment at work?

If you are found guilty of harassment at work, you could face a number of consequences. These range from a formal warning from your employer to being fired from your job. If the harassment is deemed to be serious enough, you could also face criminal charges and a prison sentence (discussed below).

In addition to any legal penalties, being accused of harassment can also have a major impact on your personal and professional life. It can damage your reputation, make it difficult to find another job, and strain your relationships with family and friends.

If you are facing allegations of harassment, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. A lawyer will be able to assess the evidence against you and work with your employer or the alleged victim of the crime to try to get the case dropped before it goes any further.

Is harassment a serious offence?

Yes, harassment at work is a serious offence. While some cases of harassment at work are dealt with internally by employers, in other cases, it may even be considered a criminal act. The offence is serious enough that you could get a prison sentence if you are found guilty of a harassment offence in a court of law.

What is intimidating behaviour?

Intimidating behaviour is any type of behaviour that makes another person feel scared or threatened. It can be physical, verbal, or psychological. Some common examples include:

  • making threatening gestures
  • following someone
  • making abusive or offensive comments
  • inflicting damage to someone’s property
  • sending offensive messages online

What is psychological harassment?

Psychological harassment is any type of behaviour that has a negative impact on a person’s mental health. It can include things like:

  • making demeaning or belittling comments
  • isolation or exclusion from work events
  • micromanaging someone or giving them impossible tasks
  • setting unrealistic deadlines

The question ‘What qualifies as mental harassment?’ has a similar answer. The words psychological harassment and mental harassment are used interchangeably.

What is persistent harassment?

Persistent harassment is when someone is subjected to a number of different instances of harassment over a period of time. This can be from one person or several different people. It can also include things like cyberbullying, where someone is repeatedly harassed online, or it may happen in person, like most workplace harassment cases do.

Is trying to get someone fired harassment?

Yes, trying to get someone fired from their job can be considered harassment. This is because it is an action that is designed to make the person’s life difficult and cause them distress.

Is stalking someone at work harassment?

Stalking someone at work can be considered harassment if the victim feels scared or threatened by the behaviour. Stalking can include things like following someone home from work, showing up at their house uninvited, or sending them unwanted gifts or messages.

What is the sentence for harassment at work?

A restraining order may be made against the offender to stop the unlawful behaviour. A prison sentence may also be imposed, where the maximum sentence depends on the severity of the crime:

  • For harassment without the victim being put in fear of violence, the maximum sentence is six months’ custody, or two years’ custody if racially or religiously aggravated.
  • For harassment where the offender puts people in fear of violence, the maximum sentence is 10 years’ custody, or 14 years’ custody if racially or religiously aggravated.

For more information on sentencing, see the Sentencing Council guidelines here.

What should you do if you are charged with harassment in the workplace?

If you are charged with harassment in the workplace, the first thing you should do is seek legal advice. Having the advice of a trusted legal professional to guide you through the charging and potential trial process will be of great relief when the complexities of the criminal justice system seem overwhelming.

If you are suspended from work while an investigation is pending, you should make sure to avoid contact with the alleged victim of the harassment, as this could be seen as further harassment. You should also try to get character references from people who know you well and can attest to your good character. These references can be used in court to try to convince a judge or jury that you are not the type of person who would commit harassment.

It is unusual to be allowed to stay at work while an investigation for harassment is pending, but if that is the case, do your best to avoid the alleged victim at all times so as to not aggravate the situation. Even if you do not believe you are in the wrong, taking measures to avoid causing any more distress and disruption will likely be viewed positively by the court.

While it may feel intuitive to try to make amends by apologising or gift giving, it is usually not a good idea to confront the alleged victim of the harassment because this could be interpreted as further harassment.

What are some common defence strategies for harassment cases?

Some common defence strategies for harassment cases include:

  • claiming that the behaviour was not harassment
  • claiming that the behaviour was not directed at the victim
  • claiming that the victim did not feel harassed
  • claiming that the harassment was not persistent
  • claiming that the victim consented to the behaviour
  • claiming that you were falsely accused

Can you be charged with harassment if there are no witnesses?

Yes, you can be charged with harassment even if there are no witnesses to the behaviour. This is because the victim’s testimony is often enough to prove that the harassment took place.

Can you be charged with harassment if the victim does not want to press charges?

Yes, you can be charged with harassment even if the victim does not want to press charges. The decision to charge someone with a crime is up to the police and prosecutors, not the victim. This is because it is in the public interest for the police or the CPS to levy a charge against anyone who is putting other members of the public at risk of fear of violence or distress.

If the victim withdraws their statement, the case may be dropped simply because the police or CPS may feel they do not have a strong enough case against you without testimony. If that happens, you will be notified.

Can you be fired for harassment?

Yes, you can be fired for harassment. This is because harassment is a form of misconduct that can lead to dismissal from your job. Having pending criminal charges may also be sufficient grounds to dismiss you if the employer considers your behaviour to reflect negatively on the company.

Where to get more help with a harassment offence?

If you are being accused of harassing someone at work, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible. As mentioned, an experienced lawyer will be able to assess the evidence against you and may even be able to work with your employer or the alleged victim of the crime to try to get the case dropped before it goes any further. For more information and to arrange a free, no-obligation consultation, contact the experts at Stuart Miller Solicitors.

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