Harassment, Bullying, Stress at Work

Bullying or harassment can take different forms. It can come from one person, such as your supervisor; or from a group, such as your co-workers. No matter who does it, it can make your workplace stressful, make you feel humiliated and frustrated, and in some cases lead to depression and mental anguish. Some common examples of bullying or harassment are: 

  • Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone with words or behaviour; 
  • Unfair differential treatment; 
  • Being excluded from meetings, projects or social functions related to work; 
  • Overbearing supervision/unnecessary micromanagement; 
  • Blocking career progression or training opportunities; 
  • Being subjected to constant criticism; 
  • Making threats relating to any of your terms and conditions of employment; 
  • Unwelcome sexual advances. 

This is not an exhaustive list. In general, bullying or harassment are characterised by offensive, intimidating, or malicious behaviour, or an abuse of power that makes you feel undermined, humiliated or denigrated. 

The Law in the UK and the US

UK Law on Harassment and Bullying

The UK’s Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.  

You can have a claim for harassment under the Equality Act 2010 even if you do not personally hold the protected characteristic at which the harassment is aimed. For example, if a group of your colleagues were making racist comments addressed at no one in particular but audible to you, this would be creating an intimidating and hostile environment. You would have a claim for harassment relating to race, whether or not you were a member of the racial group they were discussing. 

If harassment is persistent, it’s possible in the UK to bring a claim for it even if no protected characteristic is involved. For example, if a co-worker just didn’t like you for reasons unrelated to a protected characteristic and harassed you persistently, you might have claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, if you can show that your employer knew (or ought to have known) that you were harassed but took no steps to stop it. 

US Law on Harassment and Bullying

In the US, protection from harassment is provided by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). US law recognizes sex, race, age, disability, color, creed, national origin, religion and genetic information as protected characteristics. Harassment is illegal if it is so severe that the work environment could reasonably be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive. Individuals who report harassment or participate in an investigation are protected by law from retaliation. You have to be a member of the group being harassed to bring a claim; for example, a White person cannot bring a claim because his colleagues regularly make offensive remarks against Black people.  

If you are not sure whether conduct you’re experiencing is illegal harassment, please contact us for advice. 

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is present when someone behaves in a way which makes you feel distressed, intimidated or offended and the behaviour is of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can include sexual comments, touching, displaying pictures of a sexual nature, and sending emails with sexual content. Inappropriate advances or pressure to engage in sexual activity can constitute sexual harassment, but it can also come from comments or behaviour relating to sex that you find offensive or degrading. 

For example, you are a woman working in the open-plan office of a courier company. Some of your male colleagues have downloaded pornography and occasionally display it on their computers. Although you aren’t coerced to view the material yourself, you still find the behaviour offensive. You may have a claim for sexual harassment. 

Sex-based harassment is considered discrimination based on sex, which is unlawful under Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the UK Equality Act 2010.  

Our Work

We work to ensure that everyone can enjoy a safe work environment, free from harassment. If you do suffer harassment, we can present the evidence to your employer and try to achieve a private settlement, or bring a public case. Both approaches can improve employer behaviour and achieve compensation for our client.   

We have represented a line of female executives, working in tech industries, facing harassment and discrimination from an all-male leadership team, generally for expressing an alternative perspective, requesting equal pay or for filling a position that they would prefer to give to a man.

We also advise employees going through the grievance or disciplinary process, related to harassment, and have helped numerous individuals navigate the process to reach a desired outcome. 

US case examples:

In 2020 we achieved a settlement of $9.4 million for ten former professors and students at the University of Rochester in New York. The University had retaliated against them after they reported Professor Florian Jaeger for sexual harassment of students. They contributed a portion of their award to people who had been hurt by the hostile environment the University had failed to fix. The lawsuit also sparked widespread changes in the University’s sexual harassment policies, personnel and operations.   

We represent eight plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Mount Sinai, a major New York hospital, and some of its employees, including Dr. Prabhjot Singh and Dr. Dennis Charney, on the grounds of sex, age and race discrimination. Dr. Singh deliberately marginalized and undermined female employees, demoted women, de-funded their established and effective programs, and made their working lives miserable until they were finally forced out. Our clients have been advocating for better treatment of women in healthcare and have encouraged others to speak out.

UK case examples:

In 2020, we reached a substantial settlement for our client, a banker, from his employer in a Protection from Harassment Act claim, relating to repeated acts of physical and psychological bullying in the workplace and off-site.

We represented an ethnic minority executive working in the creative arts against his international employer, achieving a settlement for his racial harassment and race discrimination claim.

We acted on behalf of two undergraduates in a high profile claim against the University of Warwick for discriminatory treatment in its handling of a complaint about sexual harassment by male students arising from comments in a private WhatsApp chat.

We also represented Dr Emma Chapman in a sexual harassment and discrimination claim against UCL for incidents during her PhD supervision. Breaking new ground, the claim secured a settlement without UCL’s usual non-disclosure clause; and led the university to announce a policy of prohibiting the use of NDAs in its future settlements.