What can I do to tackle bullying at work?

Action you can take

Workplace bullying often takes place behind closed doors with no witnesses and no obvious evidence. Bullies will lie to save their skins and can be convincing. They will not hesitate to make their victims look like they are in the wrong if they complain about the bullying. Here are some ways to deal with bullying at work.


Step 1: Regain Control

Whatever you do, always act reasonably. This is not giving in, but making logical judgments based on information you know or can logically deduce, politely and fairly. Recognise what is happening to you. Criticisms and allegations you think are unwarranted may be a projection of what the bully perceives as their own shortcomings.

You might have been told that you're being "managed", "mentored", "developed" or "investigated", because these are unusual but ostensibly legitimate business activities with which you're supposed to cooperate. If you're being "bullied", it is not legitimate and there is no ultimate benefit to you in cooperating. Some people will go to significant efforts to superficially justify using inappropriate management procedures, and you need to remain objective and carefully assess the situation just to be sure of what is happening.

The only way to free yourself from the fear of losing your job is to remember that it is transient anyway, that you have the power to give it up and get a better one whenever you like, and that you will do so if and when necessary. By thinking this way, you stop seeing your job as a possession that the bully can destroy, and start seeing that it is the only means the bully has to control you.

Seek support from friends and family to help you emotionally and physically as it can be very stressful dealing with bullying at work.

Step 2: Plan for Action

Find out everything you can about bullying. It's essential you do your homework before taking action. Overcome all the misconceptions about and use our resources to help you make a simple plan.

Step 3: Take Action and collect evidence

Keep a log (journal, diary) of everything - it's not each incident that counts, it's the number, regularity and especially the patterns that reveal bullying. With most forms of mystery, deception, the patterns are important. The bully can explain individual incidents but cannot explain away the pattern. It is the pattern, which reveals intent.

Keep your diary in a safe place and keep photocopies of important documents in a separate location (not at work).

Keep copies of all letters, memos, emails, etc. Get and keep everything in writing so this cannot be denied later on in meetings.

Keep a written record everything that the bully says and does. Also make a note of every interaction with HR, management, and anyone else connected with the bullying. Include dates and times. 

Record everything in writing, when criticisms or allegations are made, write and ask the bully to substantiate their criticisms and allegations in writing by providing substantive and quantifiable evidence. When the bully doesn't reply or fails to supply substantive and quantifiable evidence, write again pointing out you've asked for justification and the bully has chosen not to reply or has failed to justify their claim. 

Obtain as much written information about yourself from your workplace as you can. You may be able to use the Data Protection Act to obtain details and copies of records held on you. Be as specific as possible in your request. For more information on this, please click here.

Constructive dismissal

Employees who feel they have to resign due to the bullying behaviour of the employer may have a right to claim constructive dismissal. This is when you’re forced to leave your job against your will because of your employer’s conduct. If this happens, you may be able to go to an employment tribunalThe Equality Advisory and Support Service can help if your claim is about discrimination. 

Working with your organisation

Take the matter up with your line management or the HR team and follow the grievance policy. Obtain a copy of your employer's bullying and harassment policy, if they have one. The person who asserts their right not to be bullied is often blowing the whistle on another's incompetence (which the bullying is intended to hide). This is a long process and very stressful so take it at your pace and ensure you have the support from family and friends.

The serial bully likes to play people off against each other so try to reunite yourself with your employer against the bully. Point out professionally to your HR people that the bully is encouraging the employer and employee to engage in adversarial interaction and destructive conflict in which there are no winners, only losers. 

If the bullying has caused you to be off sick with stress, anxiety, depression etc, write a letter to the employer and state that your absence is due to symptoms resulting from stress caused by the behaviours of others and stressful working conditions. Add that you look forward to returning to work at the earliest opportunity and for (name of employer) to facilitate your return. Ask that the employer assures you, in writing, that they will fulfil their obligation of duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act to provide you with both a safe place of work and a safe system of work.

Follow the grievance procedure and if you go to employment tribunal later, the tribunal will look to see if you've followed all the options open to you (regardless of whether or not they work). The Employment Act 2002 makes it mandatory for employees and employers to follow grievance and disciplinary and dismissal procedures, otherwise any dismissal is automatically unfair and compensation could be affected.

Understanding the bully

When dealing with the bully, concentrate on the patterns of incidents rather than the incidents themselves (which are often trivial when taken out of context). The bully can always explain away individual incidents, but s/he cannot explain the pattern. When discussing any single incident, refer repeatedly to the pattern of which this incident is part.

Bullies are adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise pool negative information; make it clear to your employer that the bully is working for his or her own self-interest and gains gratification from encouraging the employer and employee to engage in adversarial interaction and destructive conflict. Remind your employer that the bully is deliberately and wilfully causing the employer to incur vicarious liability for their behaviour.

The purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy, and people who bully to hide their inadequacy are often incompetent; the worse the bullying, the greater and more widespread the incompetence.

Consider moving on

Consider leaving if this is an option. Regard it as a positive decision in the face of overwhelming odds which are not of your choosing and over which you have no control. In this type of situation, walking away is the best thing to do, for in doing so, you regain control. Choose to move on and find an employer who truly values you and your skills and where your career can flourish. Refuse to allow your health to be destroyed and your career to be wrecked.If you are forced into leaving, make it clear to your employer in writing that this is due to bullying. Get professional advice before signing anything.

Do your utmost to obtain an agreed reference. Without one, it may be difficult to get a new role. If all else fails, consider taking your employer to an Employment Tribunal; for further information see the Employment Tribunal section of GOV.UK. If you do take on the bully, beware that bullies can be very vindictive. Bullies think they are above the law - but insist that you stay rigidly within the law.

Finding support

Build yourself a support network. Bullies separate and isolate their targets, sometimes going as far as to cause division within the target's family. The bully is likely to be manipulating your work colleagues into distancing themselves from you, either by sweet-talking them with charm, or by playing on their vulnerabilities whilst raising doubts about their job security.

See your doctor as bullying may cause prolonged negative stress, which results in poor mental health. If stress or depression is diagnosed, make sure it includes the cause, eg stress caused by conditions in the workplace. If depression is diagnosed, make sure it is recorded as reactive depression. Remember that stress is not the employee's inability to cope with excessive workload but a consequence of the employer's failure to provide a safe system of work as required by the UK Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Download and read Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for employees from ACAS.


This content was developed by The Tim Field Foundation, based on the work of the late Dr Tim Field.

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