Kate has over eight years of experience as an employment and personal injury legal executive. She runs LawCat, a legal explanations website.
This article is for the UK workplace and refers to UK law.
Suffering from bullying or harassment in the work place can be an employee’s worst nightmare. It can damage self-esteem, confidence and productivity. In some situations, it can prevent people from attending work altogether.
If you are an employer, and you find out that someone in your organisation is accused of behaving in a bullying or harassing way, you are in an uncomfortable situation. You will need to investigate fully as either you have an employee who is a bully and needs to be stopped, or you have an employee who is making accusations and needs to be educated on what constitutes bullying or harassment.
In this article, we will discuss basic information about bullying and harassment at work, identifying the types of behaviors that can fall under these headings and some behaviors that do not. We will also summarize the responsibilities of employers and outline some of the options open to employees who find themselves being bullied.
What Is Harassment?
In plain English, harassment is behaviour that is unwanted, threatening or embarrassing or generally offensive. The behaviour should also be focused on one of the listed characteristics which are identified below.
While that sounds very straight forward, there can be a difference between what one employee feels is harassment and what constitutes illegal harassment.
Harassment can be verbal and can include offensive jokes, slurs, insults, name calling etc. or it can be physical, unwanted contact, violence, groping, pushing etc.
Criticism is generally not harassment, although it can depend on various points, such as the employee’s relationship with the person accused of harassing through criticism, is it the employees boss or superior? Context means a lot in these situations.
The nine characteristics identified and protected under the Equality Act 2010 are as follows:-
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage or civil partnership (in employment only)
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
The employee does not need to have any of the relevant characteristics themselves for it to count as harassment. It is still harassment if the employee is being harassed because of their association with a person who has a protected characteristic, or because they are wrongly perceived to have one of the characteristics or are treated as if they do.
What Is Bullying?
There is no legal definition of bullying. However, it is commonly accepted to be behaviour that is, repeated, intended to hurt someone (physically or emotionally) and is often aimed at particular groups, e.g., race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Examples of bullying and/or harassing behaviour can include:
- Spreading hateful rumours
- Excluding someone from the group
- Treating someone unfairly compared to others
- Overbearing supervision
- Making threats or comments about job security
- Overloading someone
- Constant unfounded criticism
Bullying and harassment do not always have to be face to face. Bullying can also be done through written communications such as emails, or on the telephone.
Employers Legal Position
In a nutshell, Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassing behavior in the workplace. This means that it is the employers job to fully investigate all accusations of bullying or harassment, and if those accusations are found to have grounds then appropriate action must be taken. If an employer is seen not to be investigating or found to have been to lenient when dealing with a bully, then they leave themselves open to a claim at Tribunal.
What Can a Bullied Employee Do: Step One
First things first, tell the person who is behaving in a bullying or harassing way to stop whatever it is they are doing that is upsetting you, or you feel is inappropriate behavior. They may be unaware of the effect of their actions. You can tell them face to face, or through email, letter or memo, it doesn’t make a difference how you do it as long as you make them aware. Do not be aggressive. Be calm and stick to the facts. Tell them what they are doing and why it is upsetting/inappropriate and then ask them to stop.
What Can a Bullied Employee Do: Step Two
If that doesn’t cause the situation to change, then let your employer know you are being harassed, so they can take measures to prevent it from happening.
What Can a Bullied Employee Do: Step Three
If telling your employer does not resolve the situation then follow your company’s complaint’s procedures. Employees can complain of behaviour that they find offensive even if it is not directed at them. Employees can also make a complaint against their employer when they are harassed by someone who doesn’t work for that company such as a customer. Union representatives can help if you ask them to.
Your employer is then duty bound to investigate the situation. After the investigation, your employer will make a decision on whether they feel you have been bullied and/or harassed. If they decide that you were not bullied and you feel the decision was wrong, then you can appeal. If they determine that you are being bullied, then you can discuss different ways of resolving the situation, like through mediation or counselling. Or your employer may decide to take disciplinary action against the bully/harasser.
What Can a Bullied Employee Do: Step Four
If despite all your efforts, this does not cause the behaviour to stop then it may be advisable to get independent advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau or contact the ACAS helpline (Tele: 0300 123 11 00).
If you decide to go ahead and raise a case with the Employment Tribunal, you must be aware that unless bullying amounts to conduct defined as harassment in the Equality Act 2010, it is not possible to make a complaint to an Employment Tribunal about it. However, if the behaviour was enough to cause you to leave your employment, then you can consider a claim for constructive dismissal.
If you resign as a last resort, you must make sure you have tried all other ways to resolve the situation before your resignation.
You should now have an understanding of what bullying and harassment is, as well as the nine characteristics protected under UK law. Employers should understand their basic responsibilities to their employees and employees should understand the steps they need to take if they feel they are being bullied or harassed.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.