Bullying in the Workplace

  • Employee Conduct
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

Read our Bullying in The Workplace advice guides for employers, or contact us for further HR, Health & Safety and Employment law advice.

Everyone has the right to feel safe and supported in their place of work. But sometimes a working relationship can turn sour, resulting in claims of bullying and harassment.

When an employee experiences bullying, they can become withdrawn and unmotivated. This can lead to a drop in productivity and an unhealthy work culture.

In this guide, we'll look at what bullying in the workplace is, the effect it can have on your workforce and the employment rights associated with it.

What is bullying in the workplace?

Bullying in the workplace is a pattern of unacceptable behaviour targeted at a specific employee or group. Bullying can take many forms, but it is often spiteful, offensive or intimidating behaviour.

Due to the varying forms of bullying, it can sometimes be difficult to spot. Bullying behaviour can have a huge negative impact on an employee's ability to do their job. It can also lead to mental health issues and prolonged workplace absences.

What is the difference between bullying and harassment?

There are key differences between bullying and harassment  that employers should be aware of.

ACAS defines harassment as 'unwanted conduct that violates people's dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.' There are numerous laws that work to protect employees from harassment, however this is only if it is related to protected characteristics.

Bullying however, is much harder to define. There is no legal definition that is widely used. But it can be defined as any unwanted conduct including humiliating or offensive behaviour. In a workplace setting, bullying may involve an abuse of power from senior colleagues or groups.

What is the legal stance on bullying at work?

Under the Equality Act 2010, employees are protected from both indirect and direct discrimination related to a relevant protected characteristic. These include:

This Equality Act 2010 protects employees from harassment at all stages of employment. This includes during the hiring and recruitment process.

Employees are protected from bullying if constitutes harassment related to one of the protected characteristics outlined in the Equality Act 2010. However, there is currently no legislation that directly deals with bullying.

Due to the vague definition of bullying, there are other employment laws that may protect staff. These include the Employment Rights Act 1996 and the Health and Safety at work etc Act 1974.

In some instances, an employment contract may state that the employer is responsible for preventing bullying or harassment. Employees may raise a grievance over the issue which could cost time and resources.

Can you be taken to tribunal over bullying at work?

If behaviour constitutes harassment under and the Equality Act 2010 then the employee may have a legal claim. This means that they could take you to an employment tribunal.

The first step is to try and deal with the problem informally through mediation. Unfortunately, this doesn't always solve the issue. Employees can use an employer's grievance procedure to make a formal complaint. They may also choose to seek legal advice.

If an employee is left to feel uncomfortable following a claim of bullying, they may see no other choice than to resign. In this instance, an employee may claim constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal is when an employee feels forced out of their place of work due to a serious breach of contract. Only employees with two years service are able to claim constructive dismissal.

What are the different types of workplace bullying?

Bullying behaviours can come in various forms, both in and out of the workplace. Understanding the different types of bullying at work is the first step towards stopping it.

Bullying at work doesn't always happen face to face. That's why it's important to spot the signs early to help tackle bullying.

Let's explore the various forms of bullying that you may come across in a professional setting.

Verbal abuse

Verbal abuse is one of the most common forms of bullying at work. Examples of verbal abuse include, mocking, humiliating jokes, or rumour spreading that hurts an individual's dignity.

It also covers r when employees are treated differently or excluded from social events. This kind of bullying can be performed by one employee or a larger group or clique.

Physical abuse

Sometimes bullying can escalate to physical violence. This could be a one-off incident, or a series of attacks. Physical bullying often refers to an employee being physically attacked but can also describe damage to an employee's personal property.

In extreme cases, physical bullying behaviours could constitute assault. In these instances, you may need to notify the police.

Cyber bullying

The rise in technology has led to a new form of bullying entering the workplace. Cyber bullying is abuse related to electronic devices such as computers and mobile phones.

It can occur via email, text messages or even phone calls. Cyber bullying can include insulting behaviour such as sending abusive messages via a work messaging app.

Cyber bullying usually creates a paper trail meaning it is easier to catch the culprit and discipline them accordingly.

Institutional bullying

Institutional bullying is when a company or organisation accepts, allows or even encourages inappropriate or intimidating behaviour.

For example, a line manager placing unrealistic expectations on a specific employee or group. This could include setting excessively high targets, forcing overtime or making staff feel intimidated if they can't keep up with the demand.

Institutional bullying can be hard to manage as it can be ingrained within a company's culture.

Sexual harassment

Although not technically a form of bullying, sexual harassment is a serious issue that employers must address. Examples may include leering looks or persistent unwanted sexual advances.

Jokes of a sexual nature, could also constitute sexual harassment. Especially if the comments are at the expense of a colleague.

What are the effects of workplace bullying?

Bullying at work can have a number of detrimental effects on an employee's health and working life. Let's explore the potential risks in more detail:

Physical symptoms

When an employee experiences bullying, it can begin to affect their physical health. The added stress can lead to some worrying symptoms. These include:

  • Panic attacks.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Headaches and migraines. 
  • Muscle tension.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Stomach ulcers.
  • Lowered immune system.

These symptoms can lead to prolonged periods of sickness and absence. Higher levels of absence can have an effect on employee output and productivity.

Mental health issues

Bullying in the workplace can have a negative effect on an employee's mental health and wellbeing.

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Mood swings.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Feelings of isolation.

These symptoms can lead to issues in an employee's personal life such as strained or deteriorating relationships. If you notice an employee dealing with any of these issues it's important to address them and advise that they seek professional advice.

Performance issues

When employees become victims of bullying they may struggle to do their job properly or keep up with the demands of their role. Employees that have experienced bullying will often try to avoid their bullies. This can lead to:

 How to handle claims of bullying in the workplace

Bullying issues are complex. That's why you need to handle all claims carefully and sensitively.

Let's explore how to handle claims of bullying.

Talk to whoever raised the complaint

The first thing to do following a claim of bullying is to talk to the person raising the issue. This can help you understand more about the circumstances surrounding the incident.

It could simply be a misunderstanding, or a workplace conflict that has grown into a larger issue. Try to stay calm and neutral when having this discussion. This can ensure that you get the most accurate information.

You need to learn why an employee believes that they are being bullied. The employee may ask to be accompanied by a trade union official or an employee representative.

During this meeting you can discuss how they would like the situation to be handled and offer advice on a solution. This can help you avoid a formal complaint being raised.

Dealing with the issue informally

In some instances, you may be able to deal with the issue informally. This is known as raising an informal grievance and can be done by talking privately with those involved in the complaint.

Depending on how this discussion goes, you may be able to resolve the issue without further investigation.

Examples of an informal resolution include:

  • Advice and support on how to avoid workplace conflict.
  • An apology from the bully or bullies.
  • A mediation session to discuss the issue.

Before any of these examples are actioned you must inform the HR department so a record of the issue can be made. After the resolution is complete you may need to keep an eye on the situation. This is to ensure that the employee isn't treated badly again.

Dealing with a formal complaint

Unfortunately, not every instance of bullying can be handled informally. Serious claims will need to follow a stricter procedure.

You should begin a formal investigation if:

  • An employee makes a formal complaint about an issue.
  • Your workplace policy states that all claims must be dealt with formally.
  • The complaint is very serious.

Conducting an investigation

As part of the formal complaint procedure, you need to thoroughly investigate the claim. Some companies have specially trained staff that deal with investigations of this nature. These are often senior managers or members of a firm's human resources department.

It's important that whoever investigates the complaint is neutral and not involved with the complaint. This is to ensure that the claim is investigated fairly.

This isn't always possible, especially in small businesses. In this instance you could pay for a trained, external party to investigate the claim and present their findings.

Protecting employees

Some circumstances may require employees to be separated while the investigation takes place. You could handle this by temporarily altering shift patterns or asking employees to work from home.

If this isn't possible, you may have to consider suspension. This should only be considered as last resort. It's important to reiterate that suspension is not a punishment or a disciplinary action.

Taking legal action

As an employer, there may be some instances of bullying that cannot be handled by the employer's This usually happens when you think that the behaviour constitutes a crime.

You may need to take legal action if an employee tells you that they've been physically attacked or threatened with violence.

Before reporting any claims to the police you should speak to the victim about how they would like to handle the situation. A legal investigation can be very traumatic for the person reporting it, so ensure that you support them during the process. You can do this by directing them to specialist charities, helplines or your company's employee assistance programme (EAP).

You should check with police about whether you can continue an internal investigation while they carry out their own. Even if the claim doesn't result in a criminal conviction, you can still carry out an internal disciplinary procedure.

What to do after resolving a claim of bullying

Part of handling claims of bullying includes dealing with the aftermath of the event. This can help build mutual trust between you and the victim and improve employee relations.

Update the person who initiated the complaint

Once the investigation is complete, you should talk to the person who made the complaint about your findings. This should include whether their complaint was 'upheld' or not. As well as the actions taken after the decision was made.

If it was upheld, explain any reasonable steps you have taken to ensure this behaviour doesn't happen again. This includes any steps you took during the disciplinary process.

If the employee doesn't agree with the grievance outcome, they may appeal the decision.

Make a record of the incident

As an employer, you should keep a record of any complaints raised within your organisation. As a minimum, you should make a record of:

  • The complaint.
  • The parties involved.
  • Any steps taken to solve the issue. 
  • Whether the issue was upheld or not and the reason behind this. 
  • How and if the issue was resolved amicably.

If the incident was handled formally, you should keep a more detailed copy of your findings. This could include minutes from the grievance hearing as well as information relating to potential appeals and disciplinary actions.

Keeping detailed records is also useful should similar behaviour happen again. If you dealt with a problem informally, it could be raised again formally. Having records in place can help present a strong legal case should the issue ever be brought to employment tribunal.

How to prevent workplace bullying

Although not a legal duty, employers should deal with all bullying in their organisation.

It's important to stop bullying at work to avoid your employees being treated unfairly.

Let's explore ways to prevent bullying in the workplace.

Create an anti-bullying policy

Creating an anti-bullying policy is a great way to outline what is and isn't acceptable behaviour. Your policy should also detail the consequences of breaking this rule and guidance on how to report bullying.

All of this information should be provided to employees via their employee handbook.

Keep channels of communication open

Having good channels of communication within your organisation has some great benefits. When employees feel comfortable enough to talk to you about their problems, you can act quickly to avoid them developing into bigger issues.

Some companies choose to appoint bullying advisers who act as employee points of contacts. These specially trained staff members can help point employees to appropriate support and advice. This could be a trade union official, someone in your HR department or an employee representative.

Take all reports seriously

It can be nerve wracking for an employee to raise a complaint about bullying at work. If an employee comes to talk to you, make sure that you take their concerns seriously.

Doing so can show that you care about the welfare of your employees and don't support any unwanted conduct or behaviour. Try to avoid offering advice on how to deal with the situation. Instead, listen to their concerns and try to find a solution together.

Promote diversity and inclusion

No one wants to work in a toxic and offensive environment. That's why it's important to stop bullying at its source.

Building a company culture that promotes diversityequality and inclusion is a great place to start. It shows that your organisation values your staff and wants to support their wellbeing.

Educate managers on how to handle bullying

Line managers are often the first to hear reports of bullying at work. That's why it's important for them to know how to handle the issue correctly.

Talk to managers about what is and isn't appropriate behaviour. Offer advice on how to manage sensitive issues and how best to signpost employees to the advice and support they need.

Get expert advice from Peninsula on bullying in the workplace

Bullying has no place in today's world of work. That's why it's important to support your staff following any claims of bullying.

Fail to handle the situation correctly and you could face losing staff and claims of constructive dismissal. This could lead to costly legal fees and damage to your business reputation.

Peninsula offers 24/7 HR advice on bullying in the workplace. Our advisors are available 365 days a year. Want to find out more? Contact us on 0800 028 2420 and book a free consultation with one of our HR consultants.

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