Bullying at work

How to deal with workplace bullying

Estimated read: 10 minutes

When talking about bullying, most people will think that it takes place only in the school playgrounds and classrooms, but for many adults, bullying has become the scourge of their work day and there often feels like there is no escape.

Key points: 

  • Bullying itself is not against the law, but if a colleague or manager is behaving in an intimidating or offensive way, it could be harassment, which is illegal under the Equality Act 2010
  • Get to know your company's policies on bullying and behaviour in the workplace, inside out. They should be detailed and applied at every level by management and supervisors should investigate any instances that are reported
  • Talk to someone about your problem. It could be another colleague, a friend, or even your family, you should not have to suffer harassment and certainly not alone
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What is bullying?

Whilst it may take the form of name calling, physical abuse, social bullying or even cyberbullying, in the workplace, bullying is a form of abusive behaviour where an individual or a group of people, create an intimidating or humiliating work environment for another. This is with the purpose of harming their dignity, safety and well-being. This can make those subjected to it anxious, depressed and it might affect their family life too. You may hear managers describe bullying as many things, but it is certainly not:

  • A "clash of personalities" – If you are being systematically belittled, excluded, or intimidated, you are not just clashing with someone, this is bullying.
  • Character building – Negative remarks and actions towards you will not build any sort of character; the effects can be debilitating and have an effect on your emotional health.
  • A leadership style – Overly aggressive or dominant managers may try and pass bullying off as their "style" of management, but if you feel threatened, this is bullying.
  • Provoked by the victim – Bullying is never the victim's fault and is often motivated by the perpetrator's own insecurities or desire to progress up the career ladder.

It is important to remember that if you are being bullied, all incidents are relevant, because they establish a pattern.

Are you protected from bullying by the law?

Bullying itself is not against the law, but if a colleague or manager is behaving in an intimidating or offensive way, it could be harassment, which is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

Examples of harassment include any unwanted behaviours regarding:

  • Your age, gender, sex, or sexuality
  • Your marital status, pregnancy, or maternity/paternity rights
  • Your race, religion, or beliefs
  • If you have a disability or additional needs

These are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010.

What to do if you are being bullied

If you feel safe and comfortable speaking to the person you feel is bullying you, it is a good idea to do so, as informing them that you will be taking a more official route may be enough to stop their behaviour. For many though, the informal way isn't an option, and if this is the case, you should make management, HR, or (if applicable) your trade union aware that you believe harassment is going on, and they should take the necessary steps to get the issue resolved.

If you are still not satisfied that the harassment has stopped, if it is not taken seriously by your line manager, or if the problem gets worse, you should seek to make an official complaint via the usual grievance procedures. The company has a legal obligation to follow up any formal grievance and deal with bullies firmly and fairly up to and including dismissal. If you are being bullied at work, there are several things you can do to maximise your chances of succeeding.

  • Get to know your company's policies on bullying and behaviour in the workplace, inside out. They should be detailed and applied at every level by management and supervisors should investigate any instances that are reported.
  • Document any incident of harassment in detail: this includes the date, times, place, who was involved, what happened, and the names of any witnesses.
  • Note down the names of people who witnessed this. Hearsay evidence is not relevant, so this detail is really important.
  • Log what occurred but also how it made you feel. The writing of a diary is quite a cathartic experience in itself and empowers the employee by understanding that it is not them that has the problem, but the bully.  
  • Talk to someone about your problem. It could be another colleague, a friend, or even your family, you should not have to suffer harassment and certainly not alone.

What can the employer do to prevent workplace bullying?

Like any workplace issue, fostering a culture that is free of bullying needs to come from the top down. Always be proactive; firstly you need to have a bullying and harassment policy in place, making it clear that this type of behaviour is considered a gross misconduct and those found guilty will be dismissed. The policy must not be a ‘tick box exercise’ but a real commitment to building a working environment that values all of the team. 

Words alone won't change a thing, so the next step is to train managers so they understand what constitutes bullying and harassing behaviour. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to reflect on their management style as well as build awareness of discrimination characteristics which are often the precursor for ridicule. Bullying and harassment may be verbal, non verbal, written or physical. It is therefore important that examples are laid out in a policy so that all staff are aware of their own behaviour and can take responsibility for it.

While employers should encourage employees who believe they are being harassed or bullied to notify the offender that their behaviour is unwelcome (by words or by conduct), it is worth recognising that this is not always possible. It is important to make clear to employees that all allegations of harassment or bullying will be taken seriously, confidentially and that grievances or complaints of harassment will not be ignored or treated lightly. 

Communicate the procedure to employees so they understand how to make a formal grievance, who the employee needs to speak to (normally their manager) and what will happen after the incident has been reported.

Further resources 

If you have gone through all of the available avenues to stop a colleague bullying and harassing you at work, it may be time to discuss your options with an experienced employment lawyer. You may find it helpful to view our workplace bullying resources section for tips and advice. If you are experiencing any form of bullying, you can call our helpline on 0808 808 2222, email us at askus@familylives.org.uk or talk to us online. You might also want to take a look at our bullying forum to see how others may have coped in similar situations. You can also get some advice from ACAS on workplace bullying. 

Watch our workplace bullying webinar for advice and guidance 

This article has been written by Simpson Millar Solicitors 

This page was updated on August 2021

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