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Guide to Being Treated Unfairly at Work

Employees can sometimes feel that they have been treated unfairly at work, and it can be difficult to know what to do in these situations. There are several different types of unfair treatment an employee can face at work, including bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation.

Getting things resolved as quickly as possible is often the best way forward, but what are the signs, and how do you even know it is happening?

Bullying in the workplace

There is no statutory definition of bullying in the workplace. In essence, bullying refers to unwanted behaviour from a person or group in the workplace that leaves you feeling intimidated, offended, undermined, degraded, or humiliated.

Perhaps someone has spread rumours about you or persistently criticises or talks down to you. Maybe you receive heavier workloads than your colleagues or are excluded from emails, meetings or social events. And although the behaviour may be a one-off incident, it could also be a regular pattern of behaviour. It may happen face-to-face or via social media, email or phone calls. It may also occur during work hours or outside the workplace during your own time.

Harassment in the workplace

Harassment can be described as a combination of bullying and discrimination, but unlike bullying, harassment is against the law. The Equality Act 2010 states that a person is classed as harassing another if they engage in "unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic", which has "the purpose or effect of violating the other persons dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person."

The definition of harassment also extends to two other types of unwanted conduct: conduct of a sexual nature and the treatment of an employee less favourably because of them rejecting or submitting to unwanted sexual behaviour or behaviour related to sex or gender reassignment. The law on harassment does not cover civil partnership or marriage.

Discrimination in the workplace

Discrimination can be direct or indirect. Direct discrimination happens when an employee is treated less favourably at work than others because they possess one of the nine protected characteristics, as set out in the Equality Act 2010. These are:

· Age

· Disability

· Gender reassignment

· Marriage and civil partnership

· Pregnancy and maternity

· Race

· Religion or belief

· Sex

· Sexual orientation

Direct discrimination can also happen when someone is believed to have a protected characteristic (this is known as discrimination by perception) or because they are connected to someone who has a protected characteristic (discrimination by association).

Indirect discrimination is more subtle. This occurs when there is a policy, procedure or rule in the workplace which applies to everyone but puts someone with a protected characteristic at an unfair disadvantage compared to others. So whilst this unfair treatment may not be personally aimed at you, the rule or policy affects you worse than others. It is important to note, there may be some cases where indirect discrimination can be objectively justified for business reasons, although these instances are fairly limited.


This refers to someone being treated unfairly at work because they have complained about harassment or discrimination, or they have supported a complaint made by someone who has. An example is when a colleague makes a sexual harassment claim against a line manager. After giving evidence supporting their claim, the manager denies their supporter a promotion and starts treating them unfairly in other ways.

The nature of your employee rights depends on the unfair treatment being complained about. If you believe you are being treated unfairly at work, whether that is by your co-workers or employer, it is important to understand what type of treatment you are actually experiencing.

As discussed above, in some circumstances, unfair treatment could be considered unlawful. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to directly or indirectly discriminate against an employee because of one of the protected characteristics. It is also unlawful to harass or victimise someone.

However, bullying in the workplace is not by itself unlawful. Although where the behaviour amounts to harassment because it relates to a protected characteristic, it will be classed as unlawful.

Employee Rights

Bullying may also give rise to a claim for constructive dismissal. If the conduct of your employer has forced you to leave your job, there could be an infringement on your employee rights. If you have left your employment due to your employee breaching your contract, you can take action by proving constructive dismissal. To do this, the employee must demonstrate there was a breach of significant severity that justified resigning.

Such claims can be hard to prove, particularly if the employer is not directly responsible for the bullying. Here, you would need to show that your employer failed to take all reasonable steps to stop the unwanted conduct being complained about. In any case, it is always best to explore every alternative option before resigning from your job.

The information on this website is intended as a guide and does not constitute legal advice. Vardags do not accept liability for any errors in the information on this website, nor any losses stemming from reliance upon the statements made herein. All articles and pages aim to reflect the legal position at time they were published, and may have been rendered obsolete by subsequent developments in the law. Should you require specialist advice, tailored to your situation, please see how Vardags can help you.

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