Bullying and Harassment

by Andrew Wood

What constitutes bullying and harassment?

The question of what actions constitute bullying and harassment is really only determined in the eyes of the recipient. If the complainant feels that they have been treated in a way that is demeaning and unacceptable, then they have grounds for complaint. Legally, the intention of the person who carried out the action is seen as irrelevant.

The main thing to question is whether the action could reasonably have been considered to cause offence. If the answer to this is yes, then it is likely that the action constitutes bullying and/or harassment.

It is unlikely that one individual incident would be enough to prove that harassment took place, as it is usually identified when it is part of a continual and frequent pattern of events. However, there are certain situations where one specific incident can be deemed serious enough to constitute harassment, perhaps even a criminal offence.

Bullying and harassment can take many forms and the methods used vary. Examples include the following categories:

  • Physical – unnecessary bodily contact, making gestures, violence, damage to property, unwanted physical advances
  • Verbal – rude comments, offensive jokes, banter, patronising comments, bad language, threats, persistent criticism
  • Behavioural – exclusion from work events or activities, non-cooperation, setting unrealistic deadlines or demeaning tasks outside the job description
  • Written – offensive emails, notes and letters
  • Display – offensive posters, calendars, slogans, graffiti and so on.

Is it strong management or bullying?

The border between strong management and bullying is one where the lines often become blurred. Many employees have identified their manager as a bully when actually they are simply being managed in an authoritative manner. Conversely, there are times when a manager feels their actions are perfectly acceptable, although in reality the individual on the receiving end feels intimidated and threatened.

Questions to consider in this situation are these:

  • Are the comments, requests and criticisms constructive and fair?
  • Are criticisms aimed at the mistake or the individual?
  • Is there positive, developmental intent behind criticisms?
  • Are the feelings of the individual being taken into consideration?

The key thing for a manager to consider is whether their actions are likely to cause the recipient to feel intimidated, threatened, victimised, undermined, offended, degraded or humiliated.

The warning signs

It can be difficult to identify if an individual is being bullied and harassed. However, there are several key warning signs that you should be aware of:

  • A drastic reduction in performance levels
  • Increased sick absence
  • A change in attitude and/or personality
  • Mood swings
  • Overreaction to seemingly minor irritations and incidents.