Workplace Bullying

09 July 2019

When running a business, you have a duty of care to protect your staff’s wellbeing. This includes preventing bullying from happening in your workplace.

Bullying is a serious issue and can have major effects on the victim, as well as your company. For example, it can lead to an increase in absenteeism and workplace stress. This is why you must deal with any complaints of bullying seriously, and do all you can to prevent it from happening.

In this guide, we'll discuss what workplace bullying is, the different forms it can take, and ways to avoid it in your company.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour towards an employee at work. To be considered bullying, the behaviour should seriously undermine their right to dignity.

Typically, this behaviour occurs over some time. For instance, an isolated incident will likely not be classed as bullying. These actions can be done by one or more people, and are aimed at both an individual or a group of employees.

Examples of bullying in the workplace

Bullying in the workplace can take many forms, for example creating undue pressure with impossible deadlines. Other examples include:

  • Verbal abuse and insults.
  • Sending abusive messages online.
  • Isolating employees or an employee from opportunities, information, and social interaction with others.
  • Intimidating someone via aggressive actions.
  • Sending aggressive emails.
  • Creating malicious rumours or spreading gossip.
  • Withholding valuable information that's needed for someone to do their job properly.
  • Blaming an employee for things beyond their control.

Remember, any behaviour an employee complains of must be repeated to constitute bullying. An isolated incident of ill-treatment may be an affront to dignity at work, but, as a one-off incident, it would not constitute bullying.

What effects can workplace bullying have?

Workplace bullying can have many negative effects on you, the employee, and the company as a whole. For example, it can lead to a poor public image of your business.

Bullying can also:

  • Create a hostile work environment.
  • Increase the rate of absenteeism and sick leave.
  • Reduce productivity.
  • Negatively affect an employee's mental health.
  • Hurt someone's ability to do their job.

An employee who has experienced bullying can also suffer from physical symptoms. Such as headaches, muscle tension, changes in appetite, and panic attacks. All of which can lead to poor well-being at work and in their personal life.

What obligations do employers have to prevent bullying?

Under Irish law, employers must prevent all forms of improper conduct or behaviour - which includes bullying. You have a duty of care to provide a safe and comfortable working environment for all your employees to work and thrive.

The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) works to create a bullying-free workplace for all employees, and the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) provides mediation to resolve issues surrounding bullying.

The Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work, sets out a procedure for dealing with the issue. Under the code, the employer must:

  • Take reasonable steps to prevent bullying in the workplace.
  • Have an anti-bullying policy to deal with complaints of bullying.
  • Develop the policy in consultation with their employees.
  • Prepare a safety statement based on the assessment of the risks that come from bullying.

How can an employee make an informal complaint of bullying?

You should deal with all complaints of bullying immediately. In the first instance, you and your staff should take an informal approach to resolve the issue.

The following steps should be taken before staff raise a formal complaint.

Initial informal process

For an informal process to work, you must create an amicable environment where both parties can discuss the ongoing issue.

If this happens, the employee will be able to make it clear to the person that their actions are undermining and unacceptable. They should fully explain the effects that bullying has on them.

Typically the employee will speak with the Contact Person (a member of senior management or the HR department) as outlined in the anti-bullying policy, who can give advice and information if needed. Whoever handles the complaint should keep a written record of the issues, along with any outcomes.

Secondary informal process

If the initial informal process doesn't work, the second informal process should follow. However, the employer can decide to skip the first step - depending on the seriousness of the complaint.

You can nominate a separate person to investigate the bullying, however, this shouldn't be the Contact Person. The person chosen should have had appropriate training and experience in dealing with similar issues.

During the second step, each stage of the investigation should be recorded. This will be important if a complaint is made to the WRC in the future.


The WRC provides a mediation service. If both parties agree, this can help to resolve issues informally before a formal process is started.

An accredited and experienced mediator will come to your company and hopefully resolve the issue before further steps are required.

If this doesn't work, then the employee may make a formal complaint.

How can an employee make a formal complaint of bullying?

If none of the above steps are successful in resolving the issue of bullying, your employees may be left with no choice but to make a formal complaint.

Your anti-bullying policy should make it clear how this is done. Such as:

  • Who they should report bullying to, such as their line manager or a member of the human resources department. This is known as a contact person.
  • What will happen when a formal complaint is made.
  • How the complaint will be investigated.
  • Who will carry out the investigation.
  • The appeals process.

 Ensure you display your bullying policy and procedures in and around the workplace, as required by law.

How to prevent bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying is a serious issue, and as an employer, it's your responsibility to prevent it from happening. There are many things you can do to hopefully ensure bullying doesn't become commonplace in your business. Let's discuss some of them in more detail:

Create an inclusive workplace

One way to prevent bullying in the workplace is to make sure you create an inclusive and diverse workplace.

This includes hiring people of all backgrounds and ages, and making sure all your employees feel comfortable in being themselves whilst at work. The last thing you want is for some of your staff to feel uncomfortable and worried about being their true selves.

Encourage open communication

Another way to avoid bullying in your company is to encourage open communication between your employees and more senior staff. Doing so will help make victims of bullying feel more comfortable reporting.

No one should be allowed to be bullied whilst at work, and open communication will help you to find and deal with the perpetrator.

Educate your employees

Another way to discourage bullying from happening is to provide education to your employees on the effect it can have on the victims.

Making everyone in your company aware of this will help show how bullying can affect someone, both physically and mentally.

What happens if you don't deal with a complaint of bullying correctly?

If an employee feels like you haven't taken their bullying complaint seriously, they can make a claim under employment equality or Health & Safety legislation to the Workplace Relations Commission.

Part of your anti-bullying policy should include information on the appeals process. This is in place for when an employee feels the bullying wasn't dealt with seriously enough. If the bullying becomes too much, and an employee is forced to leave their job, they may claim constructive dismissal under the Unfair Dismissals Act.

Any complaints made to the Workplace Relations Commission should be made within six months. However, this can be increased to twelve months if the employee can show there was a reasonable cause for the delay.

Get expert advice on workplace bullying from Peninsula

The wellbeing of your employees should be one of your main priorities, which is why you must do everything you can to prevent workplace bullying.

Allowing bullying to happen can lead to a range of negatives, for both your employees and your company as a whole. For example, it might increase rates of absences and workplace stress - which could damage your business's efficacy.

Peninsula offers 24/7 HR advice which is available 365 days a year. Want to find out more? Contact us on 1800 719 224 and book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants.

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