You might not know it, but workplace bullying is far more common than you think – a third of people have experienced it, with women more likely to be victims than men. A ‘culture of fear’ exists in most industries, preventing people from speaking out, mostly because they’re worried they might lose their jobs. And it exists everywhere. Just last year, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow and various other senior MPs, were accused of bullying junior staff members in parliament.
Bullying can seriously affect your mental health, so we asked Marian Derham, partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis and who specialises in contentious and non-contentious employment law issues, how to recognise the signs of bullying and what we can do to stop it.
What is definition of workplace bullying?
All staff are entitled to a working environment which respects their personal dignity and is free from bullying and harassment. The terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ are used interchangeably. There is no legal definition of ‘bullying’ but there are common themes of what it means in case law and various guidance. For instance, ACAS defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.
The legal definition of harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010 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’. Those relevant protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
You do not need to possess the relevant characteristic but can even suffer harassment because of your association with someone who has, or because they are wrongly perceived to have one of the protected characteristics.
Sexual harassment also comes under workplace bullying, and is defined in the Equality Act as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”. But of course, harassment and bullying are unacceptable in the workplace even if they don’ relate to any of the protected characteristics.
What are some of the most common signs of workplace bullying?
Bullying can take the form of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct. Examples include:
- Shouting at, being sarcastic towards, ridiculing or demeaning others (including copying emails that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know).
- Overbearing and intimidating levels of supervision.
- Physical or psychological threats.
- Inappropriate and unsubstantiated remarks about someone’s performance or deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading their work duties or making inappropriate critical comments about someone in front of their colleagues.
- Abuse of authority or power by those in positions of seniority.
- Deliberately excluding someone from meetings or communications without good reason.
It’s important to note, however, that legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of an individual’s performance or behaviour, or reasonable instructions given in the course of employment, doesn’t amount to bullying on their own.
The same goes for harassment, which can also take the form of physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct, whether intentional or not. This includes:
- Unwanted physical conduct or ‘horseplay’ including touching, pushing, grabbing someone, invading their personal space, and more serious forms of physical or sexual assault.
- Sexist, racist, homophobic or ageist jokes or ‘banter’, making derogatory remarks about someone’s disability or about a particular ethnic or religious group or gender.
- Sending or displaying pornographic material (including graffiti) or other material that demeans or shows hostility to someone, that some people might find offensive (including sending by texts, emails, or posting on social media).
- Unwanted sexual advances or suggestive behaviour (which the harasser may regard as harmless) or making a decision on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected.
- Outing or threatening to out someone as gay or lesbian.
One can be harassed even if they are not the intended ‘target’. For example, an individual sending offensive material to a co-worker that makes fun of disabled people, even if the co-worker is not himself disabled.
What should you do if you find yourself to be the victim of workplace bullying?
Employers are responsible for preventing workplace bullying and harassment. Your employer ideally should have a policy in place (often called an Anti- Harassment & Bullying Policy or a Dignity at Work Policy) making it clear what standards of behaviour are expected so that all staff are aware of their responsibilities to others.
If you find yourself to be the victim of workplace bullying, then you should try to deal with the matter as quickly as possible. In the first instance, it is worth reviewing your employer’s written policy (if they have one) or the Grievance Procedure, which should give guidance on taking an informal approach in dealing with the complaint.
If you don’t feel comfortable raising the issue informally with the bully, then try and speak to your line manager, HR department or a company counsellor. It’s recommended you keep a diary or note of any incidents, making a record of dates, times and witnesses (including a diary of when and to whom you have made complaints), as well as copies of any relevant materials such as letters, meeting notes, emails, texts or social media posts.
There may be others who are also suffering from the same behaviour at work or have witnessed what has happened to you, so it may be helpful to talk to your other colleagues if you feel comfortable doing so. You should also try not to be alone with the bully if possible.
If an informal approach is not effective, then follow your employer’s policy (e.g. Anti-Harassment & Bullying/Dignity at Work Policy/Grievance Procedure) which will detail how to raise a formal complaint and how your complaint will be dealt with. The employer may take informal action against the alleged bully, or may deal with the issue through mediation or counselling. In serious cases, they could take disciplinary action against the bully, in accordance with the employer’s disciplinary procedures.
If, despite these efforts, matters are not resolved, you can take legal advice on your rights, which could include bringing a claim for harassment, discrimination, and/or constructive unfair dismissal. Legal advice is available from an employment lawyer, a trade union representative (if you have one), ACAS helpline, the Citizens Advice Bureau or the Equality and Human rights Commission (EHRC).