Frequently Asked Questions
Bullying and Harassment
What are bullying and harassment?
Bullying or harassment can take different forms. It can come from one person, such as your supervisor; or from a group, such as your co-workers. No matter who does it, it can make your workplace stressful, make you feel humiliated and frustrated, and in some cases lead to depression and mental anguish.
Some common examples of bullying or harassment are:
- Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone with words or behaviour;
- Unfair differential treatment;
- Being excluded from meetings, projects or social functions related to work;
- Overbearing supervision/unnecessary micromanagement;
- Blocking career progression or training opportunities;
- Being subjected to constant criticism;
- Making threats relating to any of your terms and conditions of employment;
- Unwelcome sexual advances.
This is not an exhaustive list. In general, bullying or harassment are characterised by offensive, intimidating, or malicious behaviour, or an abuse of power that makes you feel undermined, humiliated or denigrated.
While these terms are often used interchangeably, bullying is usually defined as one particular form of harassment. Harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 as:
Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.
Example: Harassment based on age might include offensive comments about the natural signs of ageing (wrinkles, baldness) or age-related nicknames, or being excluded from after-work drinks because of age. Even pressure to retire may amount to age-related harassment.
Sexual harassment is when someone behaves in a way which makes you feel distressed, intimidated or offended, and that behaviour is sexual. This includes inappropriate advances or pressure to engage in sexual activity, as well as comments or behaviour relating to sex that you find offensive or degrading.
Example: If you are a woman working in an open-plan office and male colleagues start to download pornography and occasionally display it on their computers, although you aren’t coerced to view the material yourself, you may well still find the behaviour offensive.
Is there a legal definition of bullying and harassment?
First of all, decide whether or not you can resolve your work situation informally. Can you discuss your concerns with your line manager, an HR manager, or a trade union representative? You may also be able to tell the person who is bullying or harassing you to stop, as they may be unaware their conduct is offending you.
If you cannot solve the problem informally, your employer may have a harassment procedure which outlines the steps you can take to make a complaint about it. Alternatively, you can file a grievance, setting out the reasons for your complaint. Under either procedure, your employer should carry out an investigation, consider if your complaint should be upheld and what steps to take. This may include moving the person responsible for the harassment to another department or, if their behaviour amounts to gross misconduct, terminating their employment.
It is very useful to keep a diary record of every event where you feel you have been harassed, as well as any emails or other written communications that demonstrate this unwanted conduct. It is best to store these outside your workplace. Make sure your workplace permits you to transfer work emails to your private account or to make other sorts of copies.
I think I am being bullied at work. What should I do?
If you can show that this unwanted conduct is related to what the law calls a “protected characteristic,” for example, sex, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, you can bring a claim for harassment in the Employment Tribunal.
It is important to know there is a time limit ― you have three months, less one day, from the date of the most recent act of harassment to file a claim.
Whether or not the harassment is due to a protected characteristic*, you could also bring a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, if you can show that you have been subjected to a sustained campaign of harassment, and your employer knew (or ought to have known) that you were harassed but took no steps to stop it. This Act is often referred to as the “Stalkers Act”.
If the bullying or harassment cannot be connected to a protected characteristic but is so bad that you believe you have no choice but to resign, you may be able to bring a claim for constructive dismissal.
To make sure you understand your legal rights and entitlement, you may wish to obtain legal advice.
* Under English law, protected characteristics are age, disability, sex, race, religion and belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership and gender reassignment.
I have tried to deal with the harassment using my employer’s internal procedures, but it hasn’t stopped. What can I do?