Will bullying be on a par with harassment?

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

(Last updated )

Despite the current laws that we have in place GB law relating to discrimination and harassment, which have received attention and development over the years, bullying in the workplace remains a behaviour which has not yet received this specific attention, however could this now be changing?

Acas defines bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, or an abuse of power, which undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injuries the recipient. Bullying is a sustained form of psychological abuse, where the bully embarks on a course of aggressive and abusive behaviour, with the aim of gradually wearing the victim down so that they feel demeaned, inadequate, and worthless.

Workplace bullying can be split into two categories:

Obvious bullying:

  • shouting or swearing at ‘victims’ in public and private
  • persistent criticism
  • ignoring or deliberately excluding ‘victims’
  • persecution through threats and instilling fear
  • spreading malicious rumours
  • constantly undervaluing effort
  • dispensing disciplinary action which is totally unjustified
  • spontaneous rages, often over trivial matters.

 Less obvious bullying:

  • withholding information or supplying incorrect information
  • deliberately sabotaging or impeding work performance
  • constantly changing targets
  • setting individuals up to fail by imposing impossible deadlines
  • levelling unfair criticism about performance the night before an employee goes on holiday
  • removing areas of responsibility and imposing menial tasks
  • blocking applications for holiday, promotion or training.

 Bullying can be a breach of the implied contractual term of trust and confidence which may lead an employee to resign and bring a claim for constructive dismissal where they have two years’ plus service.

Despite the label given to bullying by Acas, there is currently no statutory definition of bullying or a standalone claim that can be brought by employees in the same way as a harassment claim. Employees can make a claim to tribunal that they have been subjected to harassment; they cannot make a claim to tribunal that they have been subjected to bullying. The claim does not exist.

The Bullying and Respect at Work Bill has therefore been proposed and if it becomes law, it will provide a statutory definition of bullying and enable claims relating to workplace bullying to be considered by an employment tribunal in a standalone claim. No proposed wording for the definition has yet been published.

The new Bill also proposes to provide a Respect at Work Code to set minimum standards for positive and respectful work environments and give powers to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate organisations where there is evidence of a culture of, or multiple incidents of, bullying and to take enforcement action.

Having clear guidelines and definitions will be useful for businesses. It will mean increased regulation and potentially more claims so employers will need to ensure that they are fully aware of the specific regulations. Training should already be provided to employees on the prevention of discrimination and harassment so bullying will need to be added to this.

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