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Discrimination in the provision of goods and services  - harassment

This advice applies to England

The Equality Act 2010 protects you from harassment by a trader or service provider, like a shop assistant or bus driver.

Harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination and includes things like abusive or threatening comments, jokes or behaviour.

If you’ve experienced harassment, you may be able to do something about it.

If you’ve been threatened

If a trader or service provider acts in a threatening or aggressive way but it doesn’t count as unlawful discrimination, there are other laws to protect you from this.

Find out what to do if you were misled or pressured into buying something you didn’t want.

When it's harassment

Harassment is a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Discrimination which is against the Equality Act is unlawful. This means you can take action in the civil courts. If you’ve been treated badly, but it’s not unlawful discrimination there may be other things you can do.

Harassment is unwanted or unwelcome behaviour which you find offensive or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated.

Unwanted behaviour could be:

  • spoken or written words or abuse
  • offensive emails, tweets or comments on social networking sites
  • images and graffiti
  • physical gestures
  • facial expressions
  • jokes

You don’t need to have previously objected or said no to something for it to be unwanted.

When harassment is unlawful discrimination

Harassment by a trader or service provider is unlawful discrimination if it’s because of, or related to:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • sex

The Equality Act calls these things 'protected characteristics'. Harassment because of one of these things is called harassment related to a protected characteristic.


You’re a Traveller and are with your family eating in a restaurant. The waiters make it obvious you’re not welcome by banging down your dinner plates, interrupting your meal and making racist comments. You feel humiliated and find the restaurant intimidating. This is harassment related to race.


You’re at your local Jobcentre waiting for an appointment. Because you’re wearing an AIDS awareness ribbon one of the advisers subjects you to abuse in front of the other people as he wrongly assumes you have HIV/AIDS. You find this deeply offensive and humiliating. You could bring a claim of harassment related to disability.

When it's not harassment under the Equality Act

It’s not harassment under the Equality Act if the behaviour is related to the following protected characteristics:

  • pregnancy and maternity
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

But if you’re treated less favourably because of one these things it could be 'direct discrimination'. Also unwanted behaviour which is because of your pregnancy and maternity may be harassment related to sex.


A bus driver is abusive to you and your same sex partner because of your sexual orientation. You could complain about direct discrimination because of sexual orientation.

What’s meant by sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is where the unwanted behaviour is of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is also unlawful under the Equality Act.

This can include:

  • sexual comments or jokes
  • physical conduct, including unwelcome sexual advances, touching, forms of sexual assault
  • displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature
  • sending emails with a sexual content


The garage where you get your car fixed displays calendars with photos of topless women. As a woman, you feel very uncomfortable and ask them to take them down. The mechanics laugh at you, make comments about your appearance and make rude gestures. This is sexual harassment.

If you’re treated badly because of your reaction to harassment

If you’re treated badly because of your reaction to sexual harassment, or harassment which is related to sex or gender reassignment, you may have a claim under the Equality Act. The Act says this is also harassment. You’re protected if you either reject or submit to the harassment.

The person who treats you badly can be the person who actually harassed you, but it can also be someone else.


A prison officer at the prison where you’re serving a sentence is making sexual advances to you. When you reject him he asks the prison governor to reduce the hours of paid work you’re doing which she then does.

This is also unlawful and you can take action under the Equality Act.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

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