Harassment at work
Employers are required to prevent harassment in the workplace.
Your employer may have to pay you compensation if you are harassed at work because of your:
- Civil status
- Family status (for example, as a parent)
- Sexual orientation
- Religious belief
- Membership of the Traveller community
These are known as the 9 grounds of discrimination (or the prohibited grounds).
This is set out under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015. Under this law, you are entitled to bring a claim to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
If you are being bullied or harassed at work for reasons that are not listed above, then this is classed as a health and safety issue, rather than an equality issue. Read about how to handle bullying at work.
What is harassment and sexual harassment?
Harassment is “unwanted conduct” relating to any of the 9 grounds of discrimination (see ‘Introduction’ above). Harassment violates your dignity and creates an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you.
Some examples of harassment include:
- Verbal harassment, such as making jokes or derogatory (offensive) comments
- Written harassment, such as graffiti, text messages, emails, or social media posts
- Physical harassment, such as shoving or any other assault
- Intimidating behaviour, such as gestures or threatening poses
- Visual displays such as posters, emblems or badges
- Excessive monitoring of work
- Isolation or exclusion from social activities
- Unreasonably changing your job content or target.
Sexual harassment is “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” that affects your dignity at work..
Sexual harassment can include many behaviours, such as:
- Physical conduct of a sexual nature, including unnecessary touching, brushing against another employee’s body, assault and coercive sexual intercourse
- Verbal conduct of a sexual nature, including propositions or pressure for sexual contact, continued suggestions for social contact outside the work place after it has been made clear that such suggestions are unwelcome, suggestive remarks, innuendo or lewd comments
- Written conduct of a sexual nature, including emails, text messages or social media posts
- Other conduct of a sexual nature, for example, whistling, leering, and display of sexually suggestive pictures
- Gender-based conduct, including derogatory or degrading insults which are gender based (for example, insulting an employee because they are pregnant or transgender)
Who carries out harassment and sexual harassment?
The law protects you from harassment and sexual harassment by:
- A fellow worker
- Your boss
- Someone in a superior position
- A client
- A customer
- Any other business contact (such as external contractors, cleaning and maintenance staff, volunteers, and so on)
Where can harassment happen?
Harassment can take place at work, on a training course, on a work trip, at a work social event, or any other occasion connected with your job.
Who is affected by harassment?
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. Your employer should also have an effective grievance or complaints procedure in place to deal with complaints about harassment.
All employees must be made aware of the policy and procedures.
The new Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment at Work (pdf) has practical guidance for employers and employees on how to prevent harassment and sexual harassment at work, and how to put procedures in place to deal with it. The Code is legally admissible in evidence in proceedings before the courts, the WRC and the Labour Court.
If harassment has taken place
By law, your employer may 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.
You cannot be victimised for bringing a claim under employment equality legislation.
Make a complaint about harassment at work
If you want to make a complaint about harassment, you should begin by telling 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 ask a friend or colleague, a designated person at work or a trade union representative to approach the person on your behalf. Often, an informal approach like this will resolve the issue.
Formal complaint to your employer
Sometimes, an informal approach is not enough to resolve the issue. In situations where the harassment continues, you may need to make a formal complaint.
Check your employer's policy on harassment to find 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
If you feel your complaint about harassment or sexual harassment has not been dealt with properly by your employer, you can make a complaint to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) using their online complaint form.
You must submit your complaint under the Employment Equality Acts within 6 months of the last act of harassment. This time limit can be extended by a further 6 months if there was a “reasonable cause” for the delay.
If you cannot complain effectively because of an intellectual or physiological disability, then a parent, guardian or other person can complain on your behalf.
Read the free guide to taking an employment equality case on the Community Law and Mediation (CLM) website. CLM also offers free legal information, advice and mediation services.
Mediation at the WRC
In some cases, the WRC may refer your harassment complaint for mediation. When this happens, a mediation officer will speak to both parties involved and help you come to an agreed resolution.
The mediation officer will record the resolution in writing, and give it to the Director General of the WRC. The terms of the resolution are confidential and legally binding on you and the other person.
Read more about workplace mediation.
If you are being harassed or bullied at work, and it is not linked to one of the 9 grounds of discrimination (see ‘Introduction’ above), then it is a health and safety issue. Read about how to handle bullying at work, or visit the Health and Safety Authority website for advice on bullying at work.
You can also read the 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.
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.