Law guide: Workplace

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Bullying in the workplace

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying in the workplace

The rights set out in this section apply to all categories of staff who may work in a business, including workers, employees, contractors, partners or a director, but not volunteers. It doesn't matter how many hours you work to be protected by anti-discrimination legislation. For more information, see Employees, workers and the self-employed.

Bullying at work is when someone tries to intimidate a member of staff, 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 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 you against bullying as such 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 employer's legal duty

There is a legal duty imposed on all employers to ensure that their workers are not subjected to bad treatment or bullying and give all reasonable support to them to make sure that they can carry out their duties without harassment or disruption from other staff.

Your employer is not liable where they were not aware that you were being bullied, or if they were aware, they did everything practicable to protect you from any bullying/harassment in the workplace.

In some circumstances you will also have protection from bullying under the Protection from Harassment Act which allows the aggrieved person 6 years (3 years in Scotland) from the date of the bullying incident to bring a claim in the county court, High Court, or (in Scotland) the sheriff court or Court of Session.

Examples of bullying behaviour

Bullying includes abuse, physical or verbal violence, humiliation and undermining someone's confidence. You are probably being bullied if, for example, you're:

  • Constantly picked on
  • Humiliated in front of colleagues
  • Regularly unfairly treated
  • Physically or verbally abused
  • Blamed for problems caused by others
  • Always given too much to do, so that you regularly fail in your 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.

Before taking action

If you think you're being bullied, it's best to talk it over with someone, because what sometimes seems like bullying might not be. For example, you might have more work to do because of a change in the way your organisation is run. If you find it difficult to cope, talk to your manager or supervisor, who might be as concerned as you are. Sometimes all it takes is a change in the way you work to give you time to adjust to new circumstances.

What can I do if I'm bullied at work?

There are informal measures you can take if you're being bullied.

Get advice

Speak to someone about how you might deal with the problem informally. This might be:

  • An employee representative like a trade union official
  • Someone in the firm's human resources department
  • Your manager or supervisor

Some employers may have specially trained staff to help with bullying and harassment problems.

Talk to the bully

If you can, talk to the person in question, who may not realise how their behaviour has been affecting you. Work out what to say beforehand. If you don't want to talk to them yourself, ask someone else to do so on your behalf.

Keep a written record or diary

Write down details of every incident and keep copies of any relevant documents.

Make a formal complaint

If you can't solve the problem informally, you must follow your employer's grievance procedure. If your employer doesn't have a grievance procedure, you should set out your complaint in a letter and hand it to your line manager. If your line manager is the problem, then hand your letter to any HR manager or your line manager's supervisor.

Your employer should then arrange a grievance meeting with you. If the outcome of the meeting is unsatisfactory, you have the right to appeal to a manager who was not previously involved in your grievance. For more information, see Grievance procedures in England, Wales and Scotland.

Taking legal action

Sometimes the problem continues even after you've followed your employer's grievance procedure. If nothing is done to put things right, you can think about legal action, which may mean going to an Employment Tribunal or to court. Get professional advice before taking this step.

Note that it's not possible to go to a tribunal directly over bullying, but complaints can be made under discrimination and harassment laws. If you've left your job because of bullying, you might be able to claim unfair 'constructive' dismissal. This can be difficult to prove, so it's important to first get advice from a lawyer or other professional.

Further information

See the Acas guide for employers and employees on discrimination, bullying and harassment.

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