Legal Guides

We use plain and simple English to give you an overview of the most common areas of law.

Bullying and harassment at work

Bullying and harassment at work is a serious issue, whether at the hands of your manager, other colleagues or even customers. It can occur in the place of work, off premises or online

What does bullying and harassment at work include?

Workplace bullying and harassment can take many forms, some more obvious than others. Examples of workplace bullying and harassment include:

  • name calling, sexist remarks, racial slurs, comments about appearance;
  • offensive office ‘banter’ and controversial or bawdy humour;
  • inappropriate advances from a co-worker or boss while on a business trip;
  • unfair treatment or informal threats of being sacked;
  • being publicly belittled, for example with unfair criticism of your work;
  • being given impossible performance targets so that you are guaranteed to fail;
  • malicious rumours and gossip spread by word of mouth or email;
  • sexual innuendo or unwanted flirting, including “sexting” or sexual comments made via social media.

Is bullying and harassment at work illegal?

The terms bullying and harassment have different meanings in employment law.

Harassment is linked to discrimination. It is related to any of the following ‘protected characteristics’:

  • age;
  • sex;
  • disability;
  • gender (including gender reassignment);
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion or philosophical belief;
  • sexual orientation.

Harassing someone from one of these groups is illegal if it violates their dignity, or if it creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

Harassment can be indirect. For example malicious gossip, or racist jokes, or nude pictures on the wall.

Bullying is often defined in terms of behaviour that undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures a person. It is not linked to discrimination, so the legal implications are different to harassment.

Employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of their staff. So if the stress caused by bullying is making you unwell, or you feel physically threatened or suffer physical assault at work, your employer must act to protect you from harm.

What can I do about bullying or harassment in the workplace?

Talk to someone you feel comfortable discussing the problem with. This may be a work colleague, your manager or an employee or trade union representative. You may not be the only person affected by the bullying.

If the bullying or harassment is affecting your health, visit your doctor. If it is causing you to take time off work sick, ask for a ‘fit note’.

If you have not already done so, try to speak with the person who is bullying you and firmly but calmly ask them to stop – they may not be aware of how they are making you feel.

If you don’t feel comfortable in a face-to-face confrontation, write an email or note to the bully, clearly stating what your objections are.

Keep a detailed record of every bullying incident and related conversations. Keep any evidence, for example emails from the bully.

Raise your concerns with your line manager or the HR department with evidence to back up your claim if you have it. If you are being bullied by your manager and don’t have an HR manager, talk to a more senior manager if possible.

Taking formal action

You should have been given a copy of the company’s written disciplinary and grievance procedure when you started your employment (it may be part of the company handbook) – this should set out the internal steps you can take to address a problem at work such as bullying or harassment.

If an informal approach does not work, follow the formal grievance procedure set out in your company’s policy. If you are a member of a trade union, talk to the employee representative about your problem.

If you have exhausted all other options and the problem is still not resolved, you can discuss the matter with an employment lawyer who may advise legal action. In some circumstances this may lead to a settlement agreement or as a last resort, an employment tribunal

If you resign as a result of bullying or harassment, in certain circumstances you may be able to bring a claim of constructive dismissal against your former employer, based on the fact that the mutual trust and confidence has been broken. But always take legal advice first.

If the issue is one of health and safety, you may have grounds for a personal injury claim against your employer.

DISCLAIMER: This article should not be regarded as constituting legal advice in relation to particular circumstances, and is merely a general comment on the relevant topic. If specific advice is required in connection with any of the matters covered in this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.

Published on 17th July 2023
(Last updated 6th September 2023)

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