Workplace bullying and harassment

Workplace bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment in the workplace is something many employees go through but don't know what they can do. Many feel like they can't do anything, they have to change jobs or they will loose their job if they take any form of action.

man crying at work for bullying

What is defined as bullying at work?

There is no legal definition of bullying. Acas, however, defines workplace bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied”. The Health and Safety Executive emphasises this is a pattern of behaviour rather than isolated instances, happening “repeatedly and persistently over time”.

There is also the concept of “harassment” which, unlike bullying, is defined in the Equality Act 2010.

This specifically amounts to unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic that has the purpose of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. The relevant protected characteristics are: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. A one-off incident can amount to harassment.

Women getting Harassed at work

What forms can bullying take?

Examples include:

  • Overbearing supervision.

  • Constant criticism.

  • Blocking promotion.

  • Exclusion, for example from lunches and drinks, relevant meetings, and important emails. Being overworked and expecting unreasonable response times.

  • Making threats or comments about job security without foundation.

What forms can harassment take?

Examples include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances or touching

  • Standing too close

  • The display of offensive materials

  • Asking for sexual favours

  • Being frequently teased and humiliated about a disability that you have

  • Receiving homophobic comments

What are an employer’s responsibilities?

Employers have a duty of care for all their employees to prevent bullying and harassment. They also have responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for the welfare of employees.

What legal claims do you have?

If the mutual trust and confidence has broken with your employer due to bullying at work, then you can resign and claim constructive dismissal. This is on the basis that your employer has fundamentally breached your contract making your ongoing position untenable. You would need two years’ service to qualify in bringing a claim.

If you have experienced harassment in relation to a protected characteristic (for example, disability), you can similarly bring a claim for constructive dismissal. You can also claim damages for harassment under the Equality Act. In both cases, it is recommended that you lodge a grievance before resigning, and failure to do so in a constructive dismissal claim could reduce any damages you are awarded at tribunal by up to 25%.

A tribunal claim for harassment must be brought within three months (less one day) of the last discriminatory act. You need to notify Acas under their early conciliation process within this timeframe. For constructive dismissal claims, the deadline is three months less one day from your last date of employment (this is usually the last date that you have been paid).

What should you do if you feel you are being bullied or harassed?

You should first consider whether the situation can be resolved informally. For example, you could discuss your concerns with your line manager, an HR representative, trade union official, or even the person who is bullying you (if you are able to). It may even be the case that other colleagues are experiencing a similar treatment, so it can also be helpful confide in certain colleagues as to what is going on.

If the matter cannot be resolved informally, you may wish to escalate matters and lodge a formal grievance, following which your employer should investigate the matter and hold a meeting.

Your employer should have a grievance policy that explains how the process works. Usually, the grievance is lodged with HR or your line manager (unless your line manager is the bully, in which case, if possible, you should lodge it with someone more senior). If the grievance is not upheld, you have the right to lodge an appeal. If it is upheld, the person bullying you could be disciplined or even dismissed.

It is advisable to keep a diary of events where you feel bullied or harassed, as well as emails and other communications that demonstrate the unwanted conduct. This evidence will not only be useful when you are required to recall instances of bullying, but can also show that a series of isolated instances (which can often appear “trivial”) are actually part of a wider campaign against you.

If your health (whether physical or mental) is so adversely affected by the bullying, your GP may sign you off work for stress and anxiety. Indeed, in many cases, individuals find they simply cannot return to work while the continuing threat of bullying remains.

To alleviate bullying, it would be helpful if employers adopted policies encouraging employees to speak out, together with providing appropriate assistance. They should also be discouraging any culture of bullying and harassment in the workplace.