Law guide: Workplace

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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 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 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. 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 (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 which allows the aggrieved person 6 years from the date of the bullying incident to bring a claim in the County or High Court, where you'll be able to apply for legal aid.

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 have specially trained staff to help with bullying and harassment problems – they're sometimes called 'harassment advisers'.

Talk to the bully

The bullying may not be deliberate. 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. Describe what's been happening and why you object to it. Stay calm and be polite. 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

This is the next step if you can't solve the problem informally. To do this, you must follow your employer's grievance procedure. Employers often have separate grievance procedures for bullying. If your employer does not have a grievance procedure, you should raise your grievance in writing by handing your grievance letter to your line manager or if that person is the problem, then your HR manager or the boss of your line manager. After receipt of your grievance letter, your employer should 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.

Some awkward situations

  • The bully is your manager, but the firm's grievance procedure says that's who you should speak to

Make the complaint in writing to your line manager, and ask that it's passed on to another manager to look into. If that doesn't happen or isn't possible, make the complaint to your boss's manager, or the human resources department.

  • The person bullying you is a sole trader or the firm's managing director or owner

Follow the grievance procedure. It may help you later if you have to take legal action against your employer.

  • Your boss is violent and abusive towards you and you're afraid to make a complaint

If you think that making a complaint will cause further bullying or harassment, you don't need to follow normal grievance procedures. In cases like this, you can take legal action if you wish.

What about 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 Industrial Tribunal, or County or High Court. Get professional advice before taking this step.

Remember that it's not possible to go to a tribunal directly over bullying, but complaints can be made under laws covering discrimination and harassment. 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 get advice from a specialist lawyer or other professional.

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