EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Harassment and violence at work

Violence and harassment at work is defined by the Framework agreement of April 2007 as ‘unacceptable behaviour by one or more individuals and 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 his/her health and/or creating a hostile work environment’.

Harassment is also defined within the revised Article 2(2) of Council Directive 2002/73/EC as a situation ‘where an unwanted conduct related to the sex of a person occurs with the purpose or effect or 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 2007 social partner agreement commits the signatory parties – BusinessEurope, UEAPME, CEEP, the ETUC and the liaison committee Eurocadres/CEC – to combat all unacceptable behaviour that can lead to harassment and violence at the workplace.

The agreement states that violence and harassment can:

  • be physical, psychological and/or sexual
  • be one off incidents or more systematic patterns of behaviour
  • be amongst colleagues, between superiors and subordinates or by third parties such as clients, customers, patients, pupils, etc.
  • range from minor cases of disrespect to more serious acts, including criminal offences, which require the intervention of public authorities.

This agreement states that that violence and harassment can potentially affect any workplace and any worker, irrespective of the size of the company, field of activity or form of the employment contract or relationship. Nevertheless, certain groups and sectors can be more at risk.

Commission Recommendation 92/131/EC of 27 November 1991 on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work had recommended that Member States take action to promote awareness of sexual harassment, which might, in certain circumstances, violate the principle of equal treatment within the meaning of Council Directive 76/207/EEC of 9 February 1976. Furthermore, Council Declaration of 19 December 1991 on the implementation of the Commission Recommendation included the creation of a Code of Practice to combat sexual harassment. In 1992, the Commission introduced a voluntary European Code of Practice which provided guidelines on preventing the risk of harassment and procedural safeguards against unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men at work.

However, in 1996 the Commission concluded that the Recommendation and the Code of Practice had not led to the adoption of sufficient measures to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and that further action at EU level was required. This eventually took the form of specific provisions in two directives: Council Directive 2000/43 which implements the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin (Article 2(3)); and Council Directive 2000/78 which establishes a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation (Article 2(3)).

The concept of harassment was also introduced into the amendment to Council Directive 76/207/EEC of 9 February 1976 on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for women and men as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions (as revised by Council Directive 2002/73/EC).

Harassment and violence from third parties

Guidelines agreed by the EU social partners in July 2010 deal with the issue of violence and harassment by a third party, ie by a customer or a member of the public. The guidelines were signed by EPSU, UNI europa, ETUCE, HOSPEEM, CEMR, EFEE, EuroCommerce, and CoESS.

These guidelines define violence and harassment from third parties as taking a variety of forms. It can:

  • be physical, psychological, verbal and/or sexual
  • be one-off incidents or more systematic patterns of behaviour, by an individual or group
  • originate from the actions or behaviour of clients, customers, patients, service users, pupils or parents, members of the public, or of the service provider
  • range from cases of disrespect to more serious threats and physical assault;
  • be 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.
  • constitute criminal offences aimed at the employee and his/her reputation or the property of the employer or client which may be organised or opportunistic and which require the intervention of public authorities
  • deeply affect the personality, dignity and integrity of the victims
  • occur at the work place, in the public space or in a private environment and is work related
  • occur as cyber-bullying/cyber-harassment through a wide range of information and
  • communication technologies (ICT).

Sectoral initiatives

Commerce is a sector in which employees are deemed to be at an increased risk of violence from the public, in the form of robberies and violent attacks. The social partners in this sector – EuroCommerce for employers and EURO-FIET for trade unions – therefore agreed a joint statement in March 2005 on combating violence and harassment in their sector. The statement is designed to help employers to devise a strategy for identifying the risk, reducing the risk and dealing with after-effects of incidents.

See also: discrimination; discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief; discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; European social dialogue; non-discrimination principle; racism and xenophobia.


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
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