Sexual harassment in the workplace in Bulgaria

The legal definition of harassment in the Bulgarian Anti-Discrimination Law is “unwanted physical, verbal or other conduct on the grounds of gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, genetics, citizenship, origin, religion or belief, education, convictions, political affiliation, personal or social status, disability, age, sexual orientation, marital status, property status, or on any other grounds established by law or by an international treaty to which the Republic of Bulgaria is a party, which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person and of creating a hostile, degrading, humiliating, offensive or intimidating environment”.

In addition to the general prohibition on harassment, there is a specific provision in the Anti-Discrimination Law regarding sexual harassment. According to the additional provisions of the Anti-Discrimination Law, sexual harassment is “any unwanted physical, verbal or other conduct of a sexual nature which violates the dignity or honour and creates a hostile, degrading, offensive, humiliating or intimidating environment and, in particular, where refusal to accept such conduct or the compulsion thereto may influence the taking of decisions affecting the person”.

The legal prohibition of harassment has been in force since the beginning of 2004.

No significant changes to the legal regulation of harassment are expected in the near future.

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

Generally, employers are obliged to provide equal treatment to male and female employees, and not to allow discrimination or harassment. In addition, employers are obliged to protect the dignity of their employees in the course of performing their work duties. However, the law does not impose any specific requirement for employers to prevent sexual harassment, such as an anti-sexual harassment policy, training and/or appointment of a special officer.

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

Despite the noticeable impact of the #MeToo movement in other countries and the intensive public discussions regarding the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment in Bulgaria, there has not been a significant increase in the number of sexual harassment claims in the workplace in Bulgaria. Our experience shows that in the last few years, sexual harassment claims have started to appear from time to time, but such cases are still rare. Most of the complaints are settled internally by the employer. Very few claims are raised with the competent administrative body, the Bulgarian Anti-discrimination Commission, and/or the court. Our clients, especially multinational companies, are focused on improving their internal procedures and policies that are related to dealing with harassment claims and encouraging employees to report their concerns.

An employee can make a complaint to the employer, which is obliged to immediately investigate the complaint, take measures to stop the harassment and impose disciplinary sanctions, if the harassment has been caused by another employee. Although this is not explicitly required in law, the practice is that employers in such cases form a commission, preferably with the participation of a person who is not a part of the organisation and is therefore unbiased (e.g. an attorney) to investigate such complaints.  If there is a ground for imposing disciplinary sanctions, including the dismissal of the employee who has caused the harassment, employers are obliged to observe a mandatory procedure for imposing disciplinary sanctions.

Notwithstanding the above, employees can bring a claim before the Anti-Discrimination Commission. The sanctions it can impose are financial sanctions of up to EUR 1,000 per breach. It can also issue mandatory recommendations for remedying the breach which has triggered the complaint.

An employee can also file a court claim under the general litigation regime.

Finally, an employee can submit a complaint to the Labour Inspectorate for failure by the employer to perform its statutory duties (e.g. to protect the dignity of each employee, in particular).

There is no legal requirement in relation to the order or subordination of the available legal remedies. The only rule envisaged in the law is that the Anti-Discrimination Commission shall not open a case if there is a pending court case for the same matter elsewhere.

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

Red to amber. The majority of our clients are multinational companies or major local players which are particularly sensitive to reputational issues, including any allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. A significant number of our clients take or have already taken preventive measures to introduce whistleblowing policies, codes of ethics and various other safeguards to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. A lot of them operate these policies at a group level which apply to their Bulgarian subsidiaries as well.

6. Any other relevant information on workplace harassment?

Although the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention) is not devoted particularly to sexual harassment against women in the workplace, it is worth mentioning that it has not been ratified by the Bulgarian Parliament. Amidst a huge public debate and despite the European Parliament calling for ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the Bulgarian Parliament is currently refusing to do so.

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?

There is no official data about sectors which are more heavily affected by sexual harassment than others. It can be expected, however, that the trends in Bulgaria would have a more distinct regional angle rather than a sectoral one. It is more likely that poor regions with high unemployment rate will score low in the battle against sexual harassment in the workplace as opposed to regions with better performing economies and lower unemployment rate (these are mainly the largest district cities like Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna and Bourgas). As an overall comment, sexual harassment in the workplace in Bulgaria is an issue with an unmeasured magnitude and with a slowly increasing number of complaints reaching the competent authorities and gaining publicity.