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Bullying at Work

Updated: Mar 7, 2019



People often expect bullying to end at the school gates. However, it can carry on well into adult life. Employers need to be vigilant for any bullying happening in the workplace, as they have a duty of care for the health, safety and well-being of all their employees.

There are several definitions for bullying and harassment at work. The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’.

However, bullying can have a wider definition and is characterised by ACAS as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

For the most part, people can agree on extreme cases of bullying, but it can often be difficult to determine what behaviour does actually constitute bullying. A person may consider someone’s conduct towards them to be bullying, whereas the other person may perceive the behaviour as firm management. In practice, it may be helpful for employers to have a bullying and harassment procedure that sets out specific examples of behaviour that will be considered bullying. Examples may include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours about a colleague

  • Insulting someone by words or behaviour

  • Copying memos that are critical about someone to other employees who do not need to know the information

  • Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power and position

  • Making threats or comments about the employee’s job security without foundation

  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading them with additional work or giving constant criticism

  • Exclusion

  • Taking or showing pictures/videos that are embarrassing or sexual in nature

  • Victimisation and other unfair treatment

  • Unwelcome sexual advances


Employers should not only be vigilant about bullying behaviours but should also be aware of the other signs an employee is being bullied. Those may include:

  • Poor attendance

  • Loss of productivity

  • Withdrawal from other work activities

  • Loss of respect for managers and supervisors

  • Increase in resignations


Bullying may take place in person, but can also occur through written communications, visual images, email or over the phone. For this reason, it is often hard for employers to recognise it is taking place. Employees may not feel comfortable to come forward and admit that they are being bullied, perhaps through fear or embarrassment. Employees may be anxious that others will consider them weak, or not up to the job, if they find the actions of others intimidating.

Colleagues may be reluctant to speak out as witnesses, as they too may fear the consequences for themselves. They may collude with the bully as a method of avoiding attention from the bully themselves.

It is in every employer’s interests to promote a safe, healthy and fair environment in which their staff can work. Bullying has a negative effect not only on the victim but also on the organisation. Bullying can account for poor morale and employee relations, damage to the business’ reputation, lost productivity and poor performance.

In order to tackle bullying, employers should create and implement appropriate workplace policies and procedures. A specific policy gives a clear stance that the organisation will not tolerate bullying, harassment or victimisation in any form. The policy should inform employees what bullying behaviour could look like, who to tell, how to come forward and the relevant grievance procedure. The policy should also outline any disciplinary action and grounds for dismissal that the organisation will take if a bullying claim is found to be true. It is also important to outline the protection from victimisation that the person will receive, as this may encourage employees to come forward without fear of retaliation. Confidentiality should be considered at all times.

Adequate training should be given in regard to bullying and harassment. Further, an employer may consider giving senior staff and managers specific training for managing others. Strong management can unfortunately sometimes develop into bullying behaviour. Creating a workplace culture where employees are consulted, and problems are discussed is less likely to encourage bullying and harassment than a workplace where there is an authoritarian management style.

More information is available from the ACAS website HERE.

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