Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying at Work

Employees Guide

Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work. Bullying in the workplace of any kind is in no-one’s interest and not tolerated; but if you are bullied it’s difficult knowing what to do about it, especially if the bully is your Manager or has a key role in your organisation which could pose a threat to your employment and health.


What is bullying in the Workplace?

Most people define bullying in the workplace as a form of harassment, which people say is behaviour towards you that physically threatens, emotional or social in nature, creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.  Bullying may also be characterised as offensive, malicious or insulting behaviour, and abusive.

Bullying is a misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, isolates, denigrates or injures a person.

Bullying may involve person against person or involve groups of people.  Usually bullying in the workplace is hidden or becomes part of a culture that becomes the norm. 

Whatever form bullying takes, it damages and is unwelcome to the person being bullied.

Examples of bullying/harassing at work include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone by word or behaviour (particularly on the grounds of age, race, sex, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief)
  • Copying memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know
  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone – picking on them or setting them up to fail
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Unfair treatment
  • Overbearing supervision or other misuses of power or role
  • Unwelcome sexual advances – touching, standing too close, the display of offensive materials, asking for sexual favours, making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected
  • Making threats or comments about job security without foundation
  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism
  • Preventing people progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.

Bullying and harassment can make you feel:

  • Ashamed, anxious and humiliated
  • Scared and intimidated
  • Powerless
  • Unsupported, alone, exposed, threatened
  • Violated

Bullying often triggers feelings of anger and frustration leading on to not being unable to cope. Some people may try to retaliate in some unsuitable way e.g. violence or anger.

Others may become frightened and just want to be at home. Stress, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem caused by harassment or bullying can lead to job insecurity, illness, absence from work, and even resignation. Job performance is almost always badly affected causing a problem with work, this in turn can carry over into domestic issues.

The legal position

Harassment is covered in the terms of the Equality Act 2010  as

“unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ for all their employees. Employees sometimes get confused about what is harassment and what is bullying.

It is not possible to make a direct complaint to an Employment Tribunal about bullying as it is not related to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act but if a harassment issue is not dealt with adequately by the employer you could resign and claim ‘constructive dismissal’ on the grounds of breach of contract (as long as you have worked for the employer for 12 months). The Equality Act makes your employer potentially liable for harassment of their employees by people (third parties) who are not employees of your company, such as customers or clients. They (your employer) will only be liable when harassment has occurred on at least two previous occasions, they are aware that it has taken place, and have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it from happening again.

Health and Safety and Bullying

Employers are breaching the terms of the contract of employment if they fail to protect an employee’s health and safety at work. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is currently focusing on the issue of stress at work. HSE defines stress as “the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them”. In tackling work-related stress HSE reminds employers that looking after the health of employees includes “taking steps to make sure that employees do not suffer stress-related illness as a result of work”. 

To see the HSE Stress Standards click here 

Company Policy/Actions

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying at work and harassing behaviour It is in their interests to make it clear to everyone that such behaviour is not tolerated — the costs to the business may include poor employee relations, low morale, inefficiency and potentially the loss of staff. An organisational statement to all staff about the standards of behaviour expected can make it easier for workers to be aware of their responsibilities to others. Organisations may have a whistleblowing policy and offer confidential help lines for staff to turn to in case of problems.  Larger organisations tend to have personnel departments and are generally aware of the rules around bullying and harassment. Some of the best policies I have seen have been within the public sector organisations such as local government and the NHS. 

What to do if you are being Bullied

If being bullied there are a number of things you can consider, including:

  • Has there been a change of management or organisational style to which you just need time to adjust – perhaps because you have a new manager or work requirements?
  • Is there an organisational statement of standards of behaviour that you can consult?
  • Can you talk about your worries with your personnel manager, your line manager/supervisor, union representative or colleagues, occupational health or counselling service who you may find share your concerns?
  • Can you agree changes to workload or ways of working that will make it easier for you to cope?
Bullying at Work - legal position
Bullying at Work – legal position

If you are being bullied or harassed, also consider taking action as quickly as possible. Let your union or staff representative know of the problem, or seek advice elsewhere, perhaps from a Citizens Advice Bureau, the ACAS help line (08457 47 47 47) or one of the bullying help lines that are now available by phone and on the Internet.


  • Try to talk to colleagues to find out if anyone else is suffering, or if anyone saw what happened to you – avoid being alone with the bully or harasser
  • If you are reluctant to make a complaint, go to see someone with whom you feel comfortable to discuss the problem. This may be your manager, or someone in personnel (particularly if there is someone who specifically deals with equality issues), your trade union representative, or a counsellor if your organisation has suitably trained people available
  • If you have been absent from work due to bullying or associated anxiety ask to see occupational health or HR to discuss the situation
  • Record dates, times, any witnesses, your feelings, etc. Keep copies of anything that is relevant, for instance, annual reports, letters, memos, notes of any meetings that relate to your ability to do your job. Bullying and harassment often show themselves through patterns of behaviour and frequency of incidents. You may not be the only one being bullied
  • Keep records and tell your employer of any medical help you seek linked to incidents
  • Speak to the person (bully) and ask them to stop whatever it is they are doing that is causing you distress, they could be unaware of the effect they are having on you
  • If you find it difficult to tell the person yourself, you may wish to get someone else – a colleague, trade union official or confidential counsellor– to act on your behalf
  • If you cannot face the bully, consider writing to them to make it clear what it is you object to in their behaviour. Keep copies of this and any reply
  • Be firm, not aggressive. Be positive and calm. Stick to the facts.
  • Be ready to describe what happened even if you find it embarrassing
  • If you do decide to make a formal complaint, follow your employer’s procedures, which should give you information about who to complain to and how your complaint is dealt with
  • If you have access to a union representative or other adviser, ask them to help you state your grievance clearly, as this can help in its resolution and cut the stress of the process
  • Employers should have a grievance procedure used to handle your complaint, and some organisations have special rules for dealing with bullying or harassment. After the investigation, you and your employer may wish to consider a different way of resolving your complaint, such as mediation or counselling. Alternatively, your employer may decide to take disciplinary action against the bully/harasser under the organisation’s disciplinary procedure.
  • Beware though that disciplinary procedures may also be used for disciplinary action against someone who makes an unfounded allegation of bullying or harassment.

What about taking legal action?

If despite all your efforts, nothing prevents the mistreatment, you should take advice on your legal rights. If you leave and make a claim to an employment tribunal, the tribunal will expect you to have tried to resolve the problem with the organisation and any records you make when it hears your claim. This is also the case in claims alleging discrimination, where you might still be employed by the organisation. Resignation is the last resort but make sure you have tried all other ways to resolve the situation. To make a claim of constructive unfair dismissal you need to have worked for your employer for a qualifying period of at least 12 months although check the guidance here as it changes. Dismissal – Your Rights from the UK Gov website


Some employers offer mediation services now to resolve disputes; this is an independent third-party trained in facilitating or negotiating a way through the situation without unnecessary anxiety.  Mediators sometimes help resolve disciplinary or grievance issues and is a voluntary process. Here the mediator helps two or more people in dispute to attempt to reach an agreement. Any agreement comes from those in dispute, not from the mediator. Mediators may be employees trained and accredited by an external mediation service who act as internal mediators as well as their day jobs. Or they may be an external mediation provider.

Where can you get help?

Additional advice if you need it, can be obtained through the ACAS national helpline (tel 08457 47 47 47).

Advice can also be obtained from your trade union, legal advisers, Citizens Advice Bureaux and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Further Reading and Advice

See also:

Employee’s Guide to Occupational Health  

Have you experience of bullying in your workplace?  Share your experience here

Share Post :

More Posts

Leave a Reply