Harassment at work
Employers are obliged to prevent harassment in the workplace under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015. Under this law, you are entitled to bring a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission.
Your employer may be obliged to pay you compensation if you are harassed because of your:
- Civil status
- Family status, for example, as a parent of a child
- Sexual orientation
- Religious belief
- Membership of the Traveller community
What is harassment and sexual harassment?
Harassment based on any of the above 9 grounds is a form of discrimination in relation to conditions of employment. Some examples could include making jokes or derogatory comments. The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 define harassment as “unwanted conduct” which is related to any of the 9 discriminatory grounds above.
Sexual harassment is any form of “unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”. Some examples include unwanted physical contact or unwelcome propositions.
What is 'unwanted conduct'?
In both cases, it is defined as conduct which “has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person” and it is prohibited under the Acts.
The “unwanted conduct” includes:
- Spoken words
- Gestures – including offensive gestures or facial expressions
- Production and display of written words, pictures and other material (unwelcome emails or other offensive material).
Harassment and sexual harassment can be by:
- A fellow worker
- Your boss
- Someone in a superior position
- A client
- A customer
- Any other business contact
Harrassment can take place at work or on a training course, on a work trip, at a work social event or any other occasion connected with your job.
It may be targeted at one employee or a group of employees and it may consist of a single incident or repeated inappropriate behaviour.
Your employer should have a policy and procedures to deal with and prevent harassment at work. The policy should set out what is unacceptable behaviour at work. An effective grievance or complaints procedure should be in place to deal with complaints about harassment.
All employees must be aware of the policy and procedures. The Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment at Work aims to give practical guidance to employers and employees on how to prevent sexual harassment and harassment at work and how to put procedures in place to deal with it.
Under the Acts, your employer may also be held responsible if harassment takes place completely outside the course of your employment but you are treated differently at work because of your rejection or acceptance of the harassment.
If you bring a claim against your employer for harassment, your employer may have a defence by showing that they took reasonably practical steps to prevent the harassment from happening or to prevent you from being treated differently at work.
If you bring a claim under the Acts, you cannot then be subjected to victimisation at work.
How to make a complaint
If you want to make a complaint about harassment, you should begin by making it clear to the person concerned that you find their behaviour, conduct or material unacceptable and offensive.
If you find this uncomfortable or too difficult to do, you should seek support (or for an initial approach to be made on your behalf) by a friend or colleague, a designated person at work or a trade union representative. Very often, an informal approach like this will resolve the issue.
Sometimes, an informal approach is not enough to resolve the issue. In situations where the harassment continues, you may need to consider making a formal complaint. Your employer's policy on harassment should clearly set out:
- What will happen when a formal complaint is made
- How the complaint will be investigated
- Who will carry out the investigation, taking into account issues of confidentiality and the rights of both parties
Taking your complaint further
The Workplace Relations Commission investigates and can mediate disputes in relation to the implementation of the employment equality legislation.
If you feel that your complaint about harassment on one of the discriminatory grounds has not been dealt with properly by your employer, you can make a complaint under employment equality legislation using the online complaint form available on workplacerelations.ie.
Complaints under the Employment Equality Acts must be brought within 6 months of the last act of harassment. This time limit can be increased to 12 months if “reasonable cause” for the delay can be shown. If a person is unable to pursue a claim effectively because of an intellectual or physiological disability a parent, guardian or other person acting on behalf of the complainant can bring a complaint.
You can also read or download a free guide to taking an employment equality case from the Community Law and Mediation (CLM) website. CLM also offers free legal information, advice and mediation services.
Bullying at work, when it is related to one of the discriminatory grounds, is covered by the Employment Equality Acts. Harassment and bullying at work which is not linked to a discriminatory ground is a health and safety issue. The Health and Safety Authority provides information and advice on bullying at work.
There is also a Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work (pdf). It aims to ensure that workplace bullying is not tolerated and that employers have procedures for dealing with bullying at work. You can get more information about Bullying in the workplace.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has a general remit to promote equality and can give advice and, in some cases, legal assistance if you want to bring a claim of harassment under the Employment Equality Acts.