Bullying in the workplace, does it actually happen and what is the legal standpoint?
This week is anti-bullying week, and whilst the campaign focuses on schools, bullying can
extend beyond the classroom. It’s helpful to start with a definition, and a useful one for
bullying is “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of
power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened”.
Power, in that definition, does not always mean being someone’s boss or line manager but
can include both personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation.
There are no explicit rules about bullying in the legislation, but if an employer allows it to take
place, or does nothing to stop it when complaints are made by victims, then they run the risk
of constructive dismissal claims, and potentially claims for psychiatric injury.
Harassment is a closely connected type of behaviour, and can be defined as “any unwanted
physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct, even a single incident, that has the purpose or effect
of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or
offensive environment for them.”
Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 if the conduct involved is of a sexual nature, or is related to the protected characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, marital or civil partner status, pregnancy or maternity, race colour, nationality ethnic or national origin, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.
Unlawful harassment could include unwanted physical contact, sending emails or text messages or posting social media messages which are offensive. So called “banter” in the workplace can sometimes become harassment if taken too far.
A lot of people don’t know that conduct will be unlawful harassment even if there was no
intent to do any harm, as long as the effect of the conduct was serious enough.
Within the workplace there isn’t legislation about bullying, but there is for harassment. Before
consulting a lawyer it’s best to sort out any issues around harassment informally. Often
confronting the person who is behaving in this way can be difficult, it may be easier to talk to
your manager, human resources representative, or trade union representative. If this
process fails to reach a satisfactory conclusion you can then make a formal complaint
through your employer’s grievance procedure, which will be available through your human
resources representative. If the issue is still unresolved you may wish to seek legal advice
and seek legal recourse through an employment tribunal. Employers are responsible for
preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace, having policies in place to mitigate
against this type of behaviour can help prevent these issues.
RCC&W can provide advice across a number of employment law areas, find out more about
our employment law services for employees here and for employers here, or contact us at EmploymentDeptEnqs@raeburns.co.uk to find out how we can help