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Bullying at work - what employers need to know


It seems that barely a week goes by without a story in the news about workplace bullying and its consequences. Many of these stories make unsettling reading and show that this problem is still very much with us, despite the desire of many organisations to eradicate it. Bullying at work can take many forms and can happen both in person and online. If you do not address this behaviour, it can have a serious effect on both the bullied employee and your organisation as a whole.



What is bullying?

There is no specific definition of bullying in UK law. However, in general terms, it can be described as any unwanted behaviour that makes another person feel any of the following:

  • disrespected

  • offended

  • intimidated

  • insulted

  • humiliated

  • afraid

It could be regular, or a one-off incident and may not always happen at work or be noticed by other people.


Bullying often involves one person abusing the power they hold over another. For example, a supervisor might use their status to intimidate an employee they manage.


However, bullying can also take place:

  • ‘upwardly’, between an employee and their manager;

  • between employees who are at the same level or grade;

  • between employees and people outside an organisation, such as contactors or customers.


Online bullying

It is a sad fact that bullying evolves and with the advent of modern technology, it no longer just involves in-person interaction, intimidation or immediate physical threat. Due to the growth of the internet and widespread use of smartphones, a person might receive negative or upsetting messages via:

  • email

  • online forums

  • social media

  • messaging services

This type of behaviour is often called online bullying or ‘cyber bullying’ and its effects can be just as serious as other types of bullying.



Examples of bullying

Bullying might involve:

  • spreading malicious rumours about a colleague;

  • repeatedly calling a colleague by the wrong name;

  • supervising a colleague in an overbearing way;

  • deliberately overloading a colleague with additional work;

  • constantly picking on or criticising a colleague;

  • regularly excluding a colleague from work or social activities.

How bullying differs from other types of abusive behaviour

Bullying is sometimes treated as being the same as other forms of abusive behaviour. In particular, some people might not see it as being distinct from:

  • harassment;

  • discrimination;

  • victimisation.

Bullying could be classed as harassment, victimisation or discrimination, but there are specific legal definitions and tests that need to be satisfied in order for it to class as this, for example, harassment and discrimination must relate to a specific ‘protected characteristic’.


Even if bullying isn’t classed as harassment it could still lead to other claims, such as one of constructive dismissal, if the bullying contributed towards the resignation.


As an employer, you should therefore make sure you understand these distinctions so you can take the correct course of action. For example, in some circumstances, you might need to contact the police about an incident involving harassment, discrimination or victimisation.



The effects of bullying

If an employee is bullied, and this behaviour is not addressed, it might affect their:

  • attendance;

  • productivity;

  • willingness to take part in other work activities;

  • respect for managers and supervisors.

In extreme cases, an employee might:

  • suffer ill health as a direct result of the bullying;

  • resign because of the bullying;

  • make a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

Bullying does not have to be widespread to have a significant effect on an organisation.


A single case of bullying can:

  • lead to reputational damage, particularly if the employee chooses to share their experience on social media;

  • cause other employees to look for roles elsewhere;

  • discourage high-quality candidates from applying for roles;

  • affect employee morale and motivation;

  • damage the relationship between managers and staff.


Acting to prevent and tackle bullying

As an employer, you have a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of your staff. Taking action to prevent and tackle bullying is an important part of fulfilling this duty.


Acting on this issue will also help you to:

  • avoid damage to your organisation’s reputation;

  • attract and retain staff;

  • build a healthy and collaborative culture.

Actions that you can take include:

  • introducing an anti-bullying policy;

  • communicating with your employees; and

  • monitoring staff.


Organisations should ensure that bullying in the workplace is taken seriously and that employees and other external parties can see that it is an important area for the organisation.



Introducing an anti-bullying policy

An anti-bullying policy can make it clear to employees:

  • what exactly you mean by bullying and abusive conduct;

  • how you will handle this type of behaviour.

If you do not have an anti-bullying policy, you should seek professional HR legal advice on how to draft it so that it is fit for purpose.



Communicating with your employees

Any policy you create will only be effective if your employees know it exists and understand what is expected of them. To make sure they do, you should share information with them via:

  • email

  • training sessions

  • your intranet, if you have one

and ask them to sign to say that they have seen, read and understood it.


Monitoring staff

In some cases, you might decide that you need to monitor staff. For example, if someone has reported possible cyberbullying, you might want to gather supporting evidence by monitoring:

  • employees’ emails;

  • social media sites;

  • online forums.

Although it is possible to take this kind of action, you should bear in mind that:

  • your employees must be aware that you can take this kind of action;

  • under UK GDPR, you must have a ‘lawful basis’ for monitoring employees.


Because of the emotive issues connected with bullying in the workplace, it is important that you are certain of your legal position before taking any action. It is therefore important that you seek legal advice as soon as there is any intimation of a problem.



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