EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Harassment and violence at work


The 2007 framework agreement on harassment and violence at work signed by the European social partners 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.

Regulatory aspects

EU-level legislation

In 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 take place 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’.

International Labour Organization convention

In June 2019, the General Conference of the International Labour Organization adopted the Violence and Harassment Convention, which defines ‘violence and harassment’ in the world of work as ‘a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, [including] gender-based violence and harassment’. The convention defines ‘gender-based violence and harassment’ as ‘violence and harassment directed at persons because of their sex or gender, or affecting persons of a particular sex or gender disproportionately, [including] sexual harassment’.

EU Gender Equality Strategy

On 5 March 2020, the European Commission presented its Gender Equality Strategy 2020–2025. This strategy covers all sources of gender inequality and violence against women. It contains various references to combating sexual harassment. The Commission intends to extend the areas of criminal activity where harmonisation is possible at European level to specific forms of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment and abuse of women. It encourages Member States to ratify the International Labour Organization convention, to implement the existing EU rules on protecting workers from sexual harassment and to raise people’s awareness of these rules. As an employer, the Commission also intends to adopt a ‘comprehensive legal framework’ to combat all forms of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In addition, in its proposed Digital Services Act of December 2020, the Commission aims to clarify what measures are expected from platforms to address illegal activities online, including online violence targeting women.

Historical development

Harassment and violence by a third party

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

The guidelines define third-party violence and harassment as taking a variety of forms. It could be, for example, ‘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 recommended 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 guidelines were signed by the European social partners for the central government administration sector: the Trade Unions’ National and European Administration Delegation (TUNED) and 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. [1] In October 2009, the social partners launched a toolkit to help prevent third-party violence in commerce. The social partners in other sectors – including gas, electricity, railways and education – have taken similar initiatives.

Company-level initiatives against sexual harassment

Several international framework agreements are already in place at company level to combat sexual harassment and/or violence at work. These issues, and in particular the issue of violence against women, are more and more frequently included in such agreements. The French energy group EDF’s international framework agreement on corporate social responsibility, concluded in March 2018, contains a chapter entitled ‘Combating all forms of harassment and violence in the workplace’. [2] Some transnational companies have concluded agreements on the issue of sexual harassment (for example, Unilever, [3] Sodexo, [4] Meliá Hotels International [5] and the AccorInvest group [6] ).

On 3 October 2018, the Carrefour group and the UNI Global Union federation appended a European Works Council declaration ‘addressing the issue of violence against women at work’ to their framework agreement. [7] The text emphasises the need for training and the organisation of awareness-raising activities. The signatories also call on people to reject ‘sexist or degrading comments and behaviour aimed at women in the workplace’ and to refuse to let these become commonplace.

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. ^ EuroCommerce and UNI-Europa Commerce (1995), Joint statement on combating violence in commerce, Brussels.
  2. ^ EDF (2018), Global framework agreement on the EDF Group’s corporate social responsibility (Word), Paris.
  3. ^ IUF, IndustriALL and Unilever (2016), Joint Commitment to preventing sexual harassment, London.
  4. ^ Sodexo (2017), Sodexo–IUF Joint Commitment on preventing sexual harassment, Dublin.
  5. ^ IUF and Meliá Hotels International (2019), IUF/Meliá agreement on workplace right, Palma de Mallorca.
  6. ^ IUF and AccorInvest (2019), Agreement on fighting sexual harassment, press release, 16 September.
  7. ^ UNI Global Union (2018), UNI Global Union and Carrefour united in fight to stop violence against women, press release, 3 October.

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