How to deal with workplace bullying

Bullying in the workplace can be distressing and can often lead to poor performance, sickness and in some cases resignations. Employers also have a legal responsibility to provide a safe and fair working environment for their employees, so workplace bullying is an issue businesses should take seriously.

Changing attitudes mean that different people within an organisation often have different ideas about what is acceptable behaviour in the workplace. It’s therefore important to be aware of what is considered workplace bullying under the law and what your options are for tackling this kind of behaviour.

What is classed as bullying and harassment at work?

Bullying at work can take many forms and can involve individuals or even groups of people. The bullying may be easy to identify but sometimes it may be less obvious and can occur face to face, via email, phone calls or written communications.

Some examples of workplace bullying may include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Using words or behaviour to insult
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Unfair treatment
  • Intentionally preventing job progression/promotion

The law and bullying

The words ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ are often used interchangeably and can mean the same thing. The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment 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.’

Protected characteristics include things like:

  •  age
  • disability
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex and sexual orientation.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees and it is their responsibility to prevent bullying and harassment at work. As well as protecting employees from harassment from their colleagues, employers should also protect their employees’ right to not be harassed at work by people outside the company, e.g. a client or customer. If an employee feels that they are being bullied by someone from inside or outside the company, they should report this as soon as possible to their line manager.

What steps can you take to tackle bullying in the workplace?

Most places of work should have a policy on bullying/harassment available to all staff. This should outline the steps the organisation is taking to prevent harassment at work along with the grievance and disciplinary procedures in place. Bullying can lower staff morale and therefore impact productivity, so it is in everyone’s interest to promote a harmonious workplace.

If an employee is feeling bullied or harassed, they should ideally speak to a manager, a union rep, an HR rep or even the person responsible for the bullying (if they feel comfortable doing so). They can then discuss their concerns about the behaviour they have experienced and try to resolve the situation informally first.

If the matter cannot be resolved informally, then the employee may escalate their complaint into a formal grievance at which point, the employer should hold a meeting and investigate the matter following the company’s grievance policy.

It is important for the employee to keep a diary of any incidents of bullying, including any emails or written communications, with dates and times. These can be useful tools to demonstrate the unwanted behaviour.

If the grievance is upheld, then the person responsible for the bullying should be disciplined according to the company policy. If the grievance is not upheld, then the employee may have a claim before an employment tribunal and should seek legal advice.

Taking a workplace bullying claim to an employment tribunal

Any employee taking their claim to an employment tribunal must first notify ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). ACAS will normally offer assistance to settle the dispute between the employee and the employer through Early Conciliation. This service is free, impartial and confidential.

If no settlement can be agreed, then the employee will be issued a certificate for a claim to be submitted to an Employment Tribunal. Certain rules apply but the employee should have tried all available methods to resolve the matter beforehand.

If you have experienced harassment at work or an employee has made a complaint about workplace bullying, Preston Redman’s experienced employment solicitors can help you find a positive way to resolve the situation, usually without the need for an Employment Tribunal.

For expert advice for all types of employment law issues, please contact Janine Bryant, Associate Solicitor on 01202 292424 or by email