Harassment and violence at work


The framework agreement on violence and harassment at work, concluded by the European social partners in April 2007, describes violence and harassment at work as:

… unacceptable behaviour by one or more individuals [that] can take many different forms, some of which may be more easily identified than others … harassment occurs when one or more worker or manager are repeatedly and deliberately abused, threatened and/or humiliated in circumstances relating to work. Violence occurs when one or more worker or manager are assaulted in circumstances relating to work. Harassment and violence may be carried out by one or more managers or workers, with the purpose or effect of violating a manager’s or worker’s dignity, affecting [their] health and/or creating a hostile work environment. [1]

Background and regulatory aspects

In Council Directive 2002/73/EC, harassment is defined as a situation ‘where an unwanted conduct related to the sex of a person occurs with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, and of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’. Sexual harassment is said to occur where any form of ‘unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature occurs, with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’.

The definition in Council Directive 2002/73/EC was introduced as an amendment (Article 2(2)) to Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for women and men as regards access to employment, vocational training, promotion and working conditions.

Historical development

Council Directive 2002/73/EC followed on from previous initiatives of the European Commission, such as Recommendation 92/131/EC [2] on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work, which advocated that Member States should act to promote awareness of sexual harassment, as it might – in certain circumstances – violate the principle of equal treatment. In addition, the Council Declaration of 19 December 1991 included the creation of a Code of Practice to combat sexual harassment. [3]

In 1996, the Commission concluded that the above initiatives had not led to the adoption of sufficient measures and that further action at EU level was required. This action eventually took the form of specific provisions in two directives:

Harassment and violence from third parties

The guidelines agreed by the EU social partners in July 2010 are in relation to violence and harassment by a third party, for instance by a customer or a member of the public. The guidelines were signed by two EU trade union federations ­– the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and UNI Europa – and six EU employer organisations – European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), European Hospital and Healthcare Employers’ Association (HOSPEEM), Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), European Federation of Education Employers (EFEE), EuroCommerce, and Confederation of European Security Services (CoESS).

These guidelines define violence and harassment from third parties as taking a variety of forms: physical, psychological, verbal and/or sexual; a ‘one-off [incident] or more systematic patterns of behaviour, by an individual or group’; caused by mental health problems and/or motivated by emotional reasons, personal dislike, prejudices on grounds of gender, racial/ethnic origin, religion and belief, disability, age, sexual orientation or body image.

In November 2013, the signatory parties adopted a follow-up report on the implementation of their guidelines in which they estimated that ‘a social partner agreement on preventing third-party violence could be a further step to a more stringent implementation of the guidelines if there is consensus between the social partners to start any negotiations’.

On 17 December 2018, the agreement was also signed by European social partners for the central government administrations sector: the Trade Unions’ National and European Delegation (TUNED) and the European Public Administration Employers (EUPAE).

Sectoral initiatives

Commerce is a sector in which employees are deemed to be at an increased risk of violence from the public. As far back as 1995, the social partners in this sector agreed a joint statement on combating the issue. [4] This was designed to help employers devise a strategy for:

  • identifying the risk of violence
  • reducing the risk
  • dealing with the after-effects of incidents

In October 2009, the social partners launched a toolkit to help prevent third-party violence in commerce. The social partners in other sectors have taken similar initiatives, such as those in the gas, electricity, railways and education sectors.

Company-level initiatives

On a company level, global framework agreements may highlight the need to fight sexual harassment and/or violence at work. For instance, the global framework agreement on the corporate social responsibility of French energy group EDF, concluded in March 2018, contains a chapter on ‘Combating all forms of harassment and violence in the workplace’. [5]

In addition, some transnational companies have concluded agreements on the issue of sexual harassment. Consumer goods company Unilever, for example, signed a Joint Commitment to preventing sexual harassment with the international trade union federations International Union of Food (IUF) and IndustriALL on 26 January 2016.[6]

Similarly, the service group Sodexo signed an international agreement on preventing sexual harassment at work with the IUF in June 2017, which draws up a list of behaviours characterising sexual harassment. It also states that ‘aggravating circumstances’ may exist, for example, when harassment ‘occurs in a situation where it is a precondition to hiring, or a condition to keep a job and a factor influencing working conditions and/or career development’. [7]

On 17 January 2019, the IUF and Spanish-based Meliá Hotels International signed an agreement on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace as part of the process initiated with the 2013 IUF/Meliá agreement on workplace rights. [8]

Related dictionary terms

Discrimination discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation equal treatment European social dialogue non-discrimination principle racism and xenophobia.



  1. ^ BusinessEurope, CEEP, European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises and European Trade Union Confederation (2007), Framework agreement on violence and harassment at work , Brussels.
  2. ^ European Commission (1992): 92/131/EEC: Commission Recommendation of 27 November 1991 on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work , Brussels.
  3. ^ Council of the European Union (1992), Council Declaration of 19 December 1991 on the implementation of the Commission Recommendation on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work, including the code of practice to combat sexual harassment , Official Journal of the European Union, C 027, 4 February.
  4. ^ EuroCommerce and Uni-Europa Commerce (1995), Joint statement on combating violence in commerce, Brussels.
  5. ^ EDF (2018), Global framework agreement on the EDF Group’s corporate social responsibility (Word), Paris.
  6. ^ IUF-IndustriALL-Unilever (2016), Joint Commitment to preventing sexual harassment , London.
  7. ^ Sodexo (2017), Sodexo-IUF Joint Commitment on preventing sexual harassment , Dublin.
  8. ^ IUF and Meliá Hotels Interational (2019), IUF/Meliá agreement on workplace rights , Palma de Mallorca.

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