Legal advice and security

Bullying, offensive behaviour and sexual harassment: Here are your rights

Offensive or inappropriate actions can be anything from a thoughtless comment to bullying, sexual harassment, threats and assault. But what is the difference and what should you do if your boundaries are crossed at work?

Here you can get answers to the most common questions about abusive behaviour in the workplace and what you can do if you are exposed to it.

What is offensive behaviour?

Offensive behaviour can be many things. It may be, for example: 

  • bullying
  • sexual harassment
  • threats
  • or physical violence.  

Offensive behaviour can also be failure to act, e.g. if a person sees a violation but does not react, withholds necessary information that is important for task solving, or avoids and ignores people.

What is bullying?

Bullying is characterized by a person being exposed over a long period of time to repeated, offensive actions that are perceived as hurtful or degrading, and against which the victim cannot defend themself.  

Bullying is also characterized by the fact that it is the same person or group that is subjected to the bullying, just as it is typically the same person or group that carries out the bullying. 

The most frequent forms of bullying include: 

  • Withholding or distorting information  
  • Slander or exclusion from the social and professional community
  • Ridicule and scolding in front of others 
  • Hostility or silence  
  • Hurtful, personal remarks  
  • Invisibility  
  • Depreciation  
  • Unreasonable deprivation or reduction of responsibilities and tasks.  

Bullying in the workplace is prohibited cf. the Danish Working Environment Act. The law comes into force when the bullying can be perceived as degrading to the victim and considered harmful to the victim’s health, for example because it gives rise to stress, anxiety or depression. In addition, the nature of the bullying must be systematic and repetitive. 

Learn more about bullying and offensive behaviour at the Danish Working Environment Authority’s website

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a special form of offensive behaviour that covers unwanted, transgressive and sexually charged attention from others.  

Sexual harassment is largely dependent on the situation: Who is giving you the attention, what is the power relationship between you and what is the specific situation? 

Sexual harassment can, for example, be:  

  • Unwanted touching  
  • Unwanted physical or verbal solicitations for sexual intercourse 
  • Jokes and comments  of a sexual nature

Sexual harassment is prohibited by law cf. the Equality Act (§ 2A) and in the Working Environment Act it is defined as any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical behaviour with sexual undertones that violates a person's dignity, in particular by creating a threatening, hostile, degrading, humiliating or unpleasant climate.

How do I know if I have been subjected to an abusive act?

You may have doubts when you have experienced something that crosses the line.

It is natural to ask yourself if it was just a misunderstanding, and whether it will have unforeseeable consequences if you speak up to the person who has violated your boundaries. The answer is always that it is you who judges whether your boundaries were overstepped.

But there is no expiration date on abusive actions.   

You must therefore sleep on it, talk to your loved ones, a friend, a good colleague or a manager in whom you trust, and pay attention and take your time before you react and, for example, raise the incident with your manager or trade union representative. You can also contact IDA's career counsellors, who can help you clarify how you should proceed. 

Log in and contact IDA's career advice

What should I do if I am subjected to a violation at my workplace?

Who should I talk to if I have experienced offensive behaviour?

Offensive acts, regardless of their severity, can cause both physical and psychological harm. It helps to talk about it. But it takes both courage and strength to speak up to those who overstep your boundaries. 

Regardless of what you choose to do, it may be a good idea to talk about your experience to either your manager, your trade union representative or a good colleague.

HR or whistleblower scheme: If you are subjected to an abusive act, you can always contact your HR department or the employee who works with HR issues in your company. Firstly, the HR department can help you, as personnel matters are their area, but they also know the company and the procedures related to abusive actions. 

If you are not comfortable talking to HR, you can ask them in general what arrangements the company has in place in relation to abusive actions. It may be that you have a whistleblower scheme that you can contact. A whistleblower scheme is a system where employees in a company can confidentially or anonymously report problematic matters. This could be, for example, fraud, abuse of power or sexual abuse. 

Your immediate manager: If you trust your immediate manager in the situation, you can always talk to him/her. It is your employer's duty to ensure that your working environment is safe, and this applies to the physical as well as the psychosocial one. In this connection, your manager must draw up a plan for how the workplace's working environment will be safe. 

Your union representative: If you have an occupational health and safety representative or union representative you trust, it is a good idea to talk to them about what happened. You can agree on how they should proceed with it. You can, for example, agree that if you have clearly spoken out against the behaviour or the attention, and it repeats itself, the trade union representative must take it up with the management. 

Union reps can speak on behalf of others, which is why you can agree that you are anonymous. It is also possible that they know of others who have had a similar experience and perhaps with the same offending person. In that case, the union rep can have the opportunity to tell the management that they have heard of several similar experiences while keeping you anonymous.   

Log in and contact IDA's legal advice  

Read how your union representative can help

Should I tell the abuser?

It's not easy to speak up when someone oversteps your boundaries. It is often something you have to practice or find the courage to do.

You decide for yourself whether you want to speak up to the abuser, or whether you are more comfortable talking to someone else, such as your loved ones, a friend, a colleague or a manager you trust - especially if you are in doubt whether it was just a misunderstanding.

If you choose to speak up against the abuser, you can make the conversation easier by booking a meeting with the person so that it does not become a random situation over the coffee machine. In that case, you can ask one of the union reps, a manager or a person from HR to accompany you. 

It's a good idea if you stay in your own half of the court when you talk to the person. For example, you can say: "I experienced this happening, and it made me feel this way (sad, angry, scared, etc.). I would love to hear how you experienced it. In the future, I would like you not to say like that or do like that”.

Save evidence of violations

If you are exposed to digital violations, such as e-mails, messages or images, it is important that you save the evidence. Both because it is normal to forget details from unpleasant incidents, but also if at a later stage you need to document to a manager or similar that the incidents took place.  

You may want to keep a log so you can remember what was said, done or sent and at what times.  

If you don't want the evidence on your own phone because it might be inconvenient, you can make an arrangement with a good friend or colleague who can keep the evidence while you delete it from your phone or computer.

Colleague: What to do if you witness offensive behaviour at work

If you witness a colleague being abused, help him or her. If you are in doubt whether you should intervene, imagine that your colleague had been struck in the face instead. This is how violations are experienced psychologically. 

Think about if you were the victim of that behaviour and what you would want your colleagues to do to support you. Say, for example: "Hey, what happened just there?" and have a conversation about how you experienced the behaviour as crossing the line. 

If a colleague approaches you to inform you about his or her abusive experiences, it is important that you give the impression that it is not okay. Listen and ask about the experience. And if you really don't know what to say, just say: "I'm sorry to hear that, what can we do from here, and is there anything I can help with?"  

Avoid giving advice that your colleague should not deal with the offending experience or downright denigrate the experience. Your colleague may not turn to you because you need to fix it or become a collegial defense lawyer, but to adjust his perception, get rid of the shame and maybe muster the courage to tell the person who has engaged in abusive behaviour.

Can offensive actions cause occupational injuries?

Yes, offensive actions can lead to occupational injuries. Injuries at work may well be psychological.

If you are subjected to wrongful accusations, harassment, bullying or other offensive actions, you may risk suffering lasting effects, such as social anxiety or stress. 

If a psychological injury is to be recognized as an occupational injury, it is crucial that it requires treatment. 

Read more about occupational injuries  

Read more about mental work injuries at (in Danish)

Where can I see my workplace guidelines regarding violations?

Your workplace should have an official procedure in connection with sexual harassment and other violations, just as you hopefully already have for alcohol, smoking, stress and sick leave.

If the company has no official guidelines, you can ask your manager to draw up or expand the official guidelines, with reference to the fact that your workplace has a duty to ensure that the working environment is safe and secure.

The guidelines may, for example, contain: 

  • Guidelines for where employees can go in the event of abusive behaviour and how they can get advice and support if abusive behaviour occurs or is suspected. 
  • Guidelines for how employees who expose others to unacceptable behaviour are handled and possibly sanctioned. 
  • Guidelines for the rehabilitation of employees who have become ill due to abusive acts. 

As an employee, you can also ask your manager that the two of you together or in the whole department talk about boundaries and violations, or you can discuss it with your trade union representative or occupational health and safety representative. 

As an employee, you can also request that questions regarding offensive actions, bullying and sexual harassment become part of the company's APV. 

Read more about workplace assessments (APVs)