Sexual harassment in the workplace in Belgium

The Employee Welfare Act of 4 August 1996 prohibits violence, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Violence in the workplace means any factual situation in which a worker is threatened mentally or physically in performing their work. (The definition of violence is wide enough to include a threat - there is no need for physical violence.)

Bullying in the workplace can involve several similar or different instances of behaviour within the workplace or out of working hours with the aim or result of (i) harming the character, dignity or physical or mental integrity of a worker in the performance of their work or (ii) threatening their job or (iii) creating an intimidating and hostile environment.

Sexual harassment means any form or verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct with a sexual connotation whose aim is to harm someone’s dignity or to create an intimidating and hostile environment.

In 2014, major changes were made to the Employee Welfare Act of 4 August 1996, in order to improve the protections around violence, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Social Penal Code punishes anyone who commits acts of violence, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace. The Social Penal Code is dedicated to criminal actions in the framework of an employment relationship. There is also a General Penal Code for all other criminal actions. Criminal sanctions are applicable in case of workplace violence, bullying or sexual harassment.

2. Are employers in this jurisdiction required to take pro-active action to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

Yes, they are. All employers must do a risk analysis to determine the risks of violence, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace and to prevent these risks. All employers must also adopt the necessary measures to avoid the materialization of such risks. Failure to adopt measures is punishable with a sanction of level 2 (namely a criminal fine ranging from 400 EUR to 4000 EUR or an administrative fine ranging from 200 to 2000 EUR). 

Furthermore, employers must ensure that the worker who has been a victim of violence receives the appropriate psychological support from specialised services or institutions.

Finally, all employers must have a health and safety adviser for psychosocial aspects in the workplace. These advisers can be part of the company or of an external service. The adviser is responsible for assisting the employer and covering all psychosocial risks at work.

3. Has the #MeToo movement had a noticeable impact on the number of harassment claims against your employer clients?

We have not noticed a significant impact on the number of harassment claims.

Workers who believe they are victims of violence, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace should be given recourse to a special internal psychosocial intervention procedure that must be set up in all companies and which has to be included as a company policy. 

This internal procedure is regulated by law and must be set up by any employer. In addition to this, victims of violence, bullying and sexual harassment may also bring a criminal action at the police.

5. On a traffic light red/amber/green scale, how high a priority is tackling sexual harassment for clients in this jurisdiction?

We would say this currently sits in the red category. 

6. Any other relevant information on workplace harassment?

When performing their work, workers may come into contact with people other than workers from their own companies, such as customers, suppliers, students, workers from other companies.

The employer whose workers come into contact with such third parties is obligated to develop a prevention policy that takes into account this specific risk.

When a worker is a victim of violence, sexual harassment or bullying committed by third parties, the employer must ensure that this worker receives the appropriate psychological support from specialised services and institutions.

7. Are you aware of any sectors which have been particularly affected by, or concerned with, harassment? For example, where reports of complaints are high, or the media have exposed an issue, or regulators are taking action?

We are not aware of any sectors being particularly affected.