Law guide: Employment

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Bullying in the workplace

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying at work is when someone tries to intimidate an employee, often in the presence of colleagues. It's usually, though not always, done to someone in a less senior position through an abuse or misuse of power whereby the more junior colleague is undermined or humiliated.

Acas (which is an equivalent body to the Labour Relations Agency serving England, Wales and Scotland) defines bullying as regular intimidation that undermines the confidence and capability of the victim. It is similar to harassment, which is where someone's behaviour is offensive – for example, making abusive remarks about someone's sex, race, religion or sexual orientation.

The terms bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably and bullying is often seen as a form of harassment.

There is no specific legislation in the UK which protects workers against bullying and therefore it is not possible to make a legal claim directly about bullying. Bullying complaints can, however, be made under laws covering discrimination and harassment.

Your legal duty

There is a legal duty imposed on all employers to give all reasonable support to their employees to make sure that they are able to carry out their duties without harassment or disruption by other employees. The courts have also found that employers have a common law duty to take care of their employees and to ensure that they are not subjected to bad treatment or bullying. You are not liable where you were unaware that a worker was being bullied, or if you were aware but did everything practicable to protect the worker from any bullying/harassment in the workplace.

In some circumstances a worker will also have protection from bullying under the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order, which allows the aggrieved person 6 years from the date of the bullying incident to bring a claim in the County or High Court.

Examples of bullying behaviour

Bullying includes abuse, physical or verbal violence, humiliation and undermining someone's confidence. A worker is probably being bullied if, for example, they are:

  • Constantly picked on
  • Humiliated in front of colleagues
  • Regularly treated unfairly
  • Physically or verbally abused
  • Blamed for problems caused by others
  • Always given too much to do, so that they regularly fail in their work
  • Regularly threatened with the sack
  • Unfairly passed over for promotion or denied training opportunities

Bullying can be face-to-face, in writing, over the phone or by fax or email.

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