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What Constitutes Bullying in the Workplace?

By 13/11/2017January 23rd, 2023Employee Management, Employee Relations

It is estimated that workplace bullying costs almost £18 billion a year in the UK. It’s morally wrong and in some cases illegal. It impacts lives as well as productivity. But what constitutes bullying in the workplace?

Bullying and harassment are broadly dealt with by the same legislation in the UK: the Equality Act 2010. Broadly speaking, bullying and harassment are defined as certain behaviours and actions which cause someone to feel either intimidated or offended. They are umbrella terms which cover a wide range of behaviours such as spreading rumours, isolating someone, or making derogatory remarks. It can happen in person, online, or over the phone. They are behaviours which are “unwelcome, unwarranted, and cause a detrimental effect.”

The Difference Between Bullying and Harassment at Work

Although bullying and harassment are frequently bound together, and often dealt with in the same workplace policies, they are distinct from one another. The way to make sense of the difference is that all harassment is bullying, but not all bullying is harassment. This is also distinguished in law. Bullying itself isn’t actually illegal (although it may result in civil action) whereas harassment is.

Harassment is bullying which is related to sex or gender; disability; race; age; marital or civil partnership status and sexual orientation; maternity and pregnancy; and, religion or belief.

If You Believe You’re Being Bullied

If you think you might be being bullied, you should always feel able to speak up. The vast majority of cases of workplace bullying can be dealt with, and ended, quickly and informally. However, if the bullying or harassment continues then you should speak to your line manager. If your line manager is the perpetrator then it is acceptable to go to their line manager instead. Alternatively, you can speak to your HR department or Trade Union representative.

Your workplace should have procedures in place so your available steps should be available to you through the workplace grievance procedure.

For Both Employers and Employees

This article will go on to explain what constitutes bullying in the workplace in more detail. However, whether you are an employer or an employee, if you have questions around workplace buying you can call the ACAS helpline on 0300 123 1100.

Employers – What You Need to Know

As an employer, you have a duty of care towards your employees and must take steps to prevent bullying and harassment in the workplace. It is in your interests to have a clear Bullying and Harassment Policy, which links to your Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures so that you have a clear protocol to follow which is consistent, fair, and legal.

The fundamental premise, when tackling bullying and harassment in the workplace, is that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect. It is not profitable, productive, or efficient, for a workplace to harbour bullying and harassment problems.

As described earlier, bullying and harassment, broadly speaking is behaviour which is unwelcome, unwarranted, and causes a detrimental effect.” However, it doesn’t matter if you believe that the behaviours fall under this definition, if an employee states they feel bullied or harassed, it must be handled as a grievance.

Examples of Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying and harassment can take many different forms. Some examples include:

  • Offensive language
  • Intimidating language or behaviour
  • Name calling
  • Malicious or deceptive behaviour
  • Insulting behaviour
  • Misuse of power in the organisational hierarchy
  • Humiliation
  • Physical injury or harm

The problem with bullying in the workplace is that it can either be very hard for an outsider to spot (the bully will frequently engage in bullying when there are no witnesses), or because it is ingrained in the workplace culture – creating a systemic problem. Additionally, victims of bullying and harassment do not always speak up or speak up easily. They may be concerned about the security of their job, or be unsure whether the behaviour would be taken seriously or whether there will be any negative ‘comeback’ on them.

It is also important to note that an individual may make a claim against their employer even if the bully isn’t another employee. The bully can be a customer, client, or service user. The employer still has a duty to protect the member of staff from bullying in their place of work.

The Effects of Bullying in the Workplace

Whilst bullying isn’t illegal in itself, even though it is morally wrong, it can hit the bottom line of an organisation in numerous ways. It can also become illegal if it leads to constructive dismissal. Bullying can cause poor morale which will result in poor performance and reduced productivity. It may increase absence rates and staff turnover. Your business’s reputation may also be damaged. Then there is the cost of compensation should the situation end up at an Employment Tribunal, or even in court.

The Law

As stated earlier, the law most specifically relates to harassment. This is because bullying becomes harassment when protected characteristics are the reason.

Constructive Dismissal

If bullying and harassment isn’t stopped in its tracks, then the end result can be hugely detrimental for the employer, as well as the victim. If the mutual trust between the employee and the employer is broken, then the employee may feel they have no choice but to leave. This can constitute constructive dismissal. You could well be held responsible for the acts of bullying or harassment against your employee. You can additionally find a claim being made against you due to failure to protect your employee’s health, safety and welfare at work under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

What Should an Employer Do

We reiterate again the importance of having a clear and published Anti-Bullying and Harassment Policy which is in place alongside your Grievance and Disciplinary Procedures. This way you’ll have a consistent protocol to follow which should help eliminate any issues quickly, and provide you with legal protection if you follow it appropriately.

Typically the policy should include a statement of commitment to anti-bullying by the employer and an acknowledgement of how bullying and harassment can pose a problem. It should then go on to list examples of bullying and harassment, as well as state that such behaviours will be treated as a disciplinary offence. It should also outline the responsibility of individuals and management within the organisation and a clear timescale for action should a case arise.