Bullying and Harassment

by Andrew Wood

In a nutshell

1. What is bullying and harassment?

Bullying does not have a specific legal definition. However, it is viewed as offensive, insulting, malicious or intimidating behaviour or an abuse of power, by one or more persons, which undermines an individual’s confidence, self-esteem and right to dignity.

Harassment has been specifically linked to anti-discrimination laws in the following areas: sex, race, religion or belief, age, sexual orientation and disability. Within these laws, harassment has been given a standard definition, as follows:

A person subjects another to harassment where they engage in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person’s dignity, or create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.


2. What constitutes bullying and harassment?

The key point to realise is that bullying and harassment is any action or behaviour that is deemed unacceptable by the victim. Typical examples of bullying and harassment could be:

  • Physical – violence or unwanted sexual advances
  • Verbal – offensive jokes, banter, gossip, threats, criticism
  • Written – offensive notes, posters, letters, emails


3. The impact of bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment has implications for everyone involved:

  • The organisation can suffer from bad publicity, litigation costs and low morale and performance
  • The victim may suffer from stress, anxiety and depression
  • The accused is likely to lose their job and possibly be liable to pay out monetary awards
  • The falsely accused will never fully recover and can be regarded as the victims of harassment themselves.


4. Responsibilities and liability

Everyone has responsibilities to ensure that the workplace environment is free from bullying and harassment:

  • Employers must ensure that they have the proper regulations and policies in place and that all staff are trained; being unaware that harassment is taking place does not absolve an organisation of responsibility
  • Managers must ensure that they enforce the regulations and foster a positive approach to workplace discipline through positive leadership and coaching, setting clear standards and implementing procedures fairly
  • All employees have a role to play in ensuring that their actions and behaviours are considerate and mindful of others.


5. The law regarding bullying and harassment

There is no legal definition of bullying and so it is not possible to make a direct complaint to an employment tribunal about it. However, employees are able to bring complaints under law covering discrimination and harassment, which fall under the following legislations:

  • Equality Act 2010
  • The Criminal Justice Act 1994
  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974


6. The consequences of inaction

Where an organisation fails to act, they can be held liable for extremely costly legal action, where there is no legal limit to the award that may be made to the complainant. Other possible consequences include

  • Bad publicity in the media
  • A huge strain on resources for the organisation
  • Lost time
  • A case of constructive dismissal.


7. Handling allegations of bullying and harassment

Most organisations will have a bullying and harassment policy in place. In all cases, this policy should be followed. You should also consider these guidelines:

  • Investigate immediately
  • Take the complaint seriously
  • Be objective and independent
  • Attempt to resolve matters informally
  • Ensure confidentiality
  • Follow organisation policies and guidelines.


8. Cases where you feel bullied and/or harassed

In these cases, informal action is usually the best method to resolve the issue. The implications of legal proceedings are typically damaging for all involved.

  • Remaining calm and as objective as possible, discuss the issue with the other person
  • If an informal approach does not work, make sure you understand and follow the guidelines and processes as laid out by your organisation
  • Keep detailed records of all incidents
  • Discuss the situation with somebody impartial who you can trust
  • If all else fails, seek qualified legal advice.


9. When a complaint is made against you

Consider how best to try and resolve the issue. Seek advice from people in support roles – managers, HR, union representatives and so on.

  • Ensure that you are fully aware of the policies and procedures of the organisation and do all you can to be helpful and constructive throughout the process.
  • Avoid being drawn into gossip or trying to get people on your side.
  • Remain objective and calm.