No-one should be the victim of bullying or harassment at work.
Yet surveys report that around one-third of people have experienced being bullied or harassed at work. There can be many different causes. Sometimes it can be due to a toxic organisational culture, office politics, cliques or excessive work pressures. But also, some people are simply downright unpleasant or like to exploit their seniority over others.
And whilst allegations of bad behaviour at the very top of organisations receive attention – such as Harvey Weinstein and Sir Philip Green – of course bullying and harassment can rear its ugly head at all levels of organisations.
Such mistreatment could have serious consequences for your health, wellbeing or performance. It could lead to you feeling that you can no longer continue in your job. And the consequences can permeate beyond the workplace and to your health and personal life.
It is therefore important that you understand what exactly bullying and harassment is, your employer’s responsibilities, and what your options are to put a stop to it. We also explain how WRS can support you.
Definition and examples of harassment
Section 26(1) of the Equality Act 2010 gives a legal definition of when harassment has occurred:
“A person (A) harasses another (B) if –
(a) A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and
(b) The conduct has the purpose or effect of –
(i) violating B’s dignity, or
(ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B”
Those ‘relevant protected characteristics’ referred to are: age, disability, gender re-assignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.
For legal purposes, harassment is differentiated from discrimination, for which there is a different legal framework and to which we refer to separately.
If you cannot satisfactorily resolve your concerns through your company’s internal procedures, you may be able to make a legal claim. This can be at an employment tribunal in relation to breaches of the Equality Act 2010, or for constructive dismissal. Or in the courts under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997.
Definition of bullying
Although there is no legal definition of bullying, ACAS describes it as:
“offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”
The Health and Safety Executive also states that bullying typically involves a pattern of behaviour which occurs ‘repeatedly and consistently over time’.
Unlike harassment, you cannot pursue an employment tribunal claim specifically on the grounds of bullying. Nevertheless, bullying can provide the basis of other legal action – such as for a claim of constructive dismissal – if you can show that there has been a fundamental breakdown of mutual trust and confidence with your employer, whereby you can no longer continue working.
Examples of bullying and harassment
Bullying or harassment can be conducted by just one individual (perhaps a manager or supervisor), or involve a group of people. It can be blatant. Or it can be more subtle and underhand – gradually evolving over a succession of perhaps not obviously connected behaviours. It can also be face-to-face or behind your back. Verbal, by email or online.
ACAS has produced an excellent guide in which it provides examples of bullying and harassment:
- spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone (especially for one of the protected characteristics referred to under the definition of harassment)
- unwelcome sexual advances – such as touching, standing too close, the display of offensive materials, asking for sexual favours, making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected
- copying emails and memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know
- ridiculing or demeaning someone – picking on them, making derogatory comments about their performance, or setting them up to fail
- exclusion or victimisation
- unfair treatment
- overbearing supervision, or other misuse of power or position (including unwarranted disciplinary proceedings)
- making threats or comments about someone’s job security without foundation
- deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading them with excessive workloads or unrealistic targets and expectations. Alternatively, giving someone menial or pointless tasks to complete in an effort to demoralise or humiliate them
- Constant criticism – or denying praise and recognition when it is due
- preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.
To establish whether bullying or harassment has taken place, you don’t necessarily need to prove that the mistreatment was intentional. What matters is how it made you personally feel. Were the actions, comments or other behaviours you have had to endure demeaning or unacceptable to you?
If these or similar circumstances apply, you will have grounds for making a complaint and your employer will be required investigate your concerns.
Your employer’s responsibilities
Your employer has a legal ‘duty of care’ to you, to provide a safe and stress-free environment in which to work. It may also have what is known as ‘vicariously liability’ for the actions of its employees, if inappropriate conduct happens in the course of their employment (for example, in their role as a manager).
An illustration of the latter would be where an individual has been deliberately ‘set up to fail’ with unrealistic performance targets. Or subject to unwarranted and malicious disciplinary proceedings.
To limit its legal liability, your employer must be able to show that it has taken ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent mistreatment. This is regardless of whether it knew it was happening. It must also respond swiftly and effectively once made aware of any concerns.
If your employer fails to take appropriate action, under the Employment Rights Act 1996 you may have grounds for claiming constructive dismissal if forced to leave your job. This could either because of the actions (or inactions) of your employer, or for failure to satisfactorily deal with your complaint.
How you should deal with bullying or harassment
Do not put up with being bullied or harassed at work.
If your treatment is having a bearing on your health and wellbeing, discuss it with your family, friends or GP. We also provide links on this page to a few of the excellent charities providing support. As the adage goes … a problem shared can be a problem halved!
If you have the confidence to do so, first raise your concerns with the person treating you improperly. Ask that they reflect on their behaviours and alter their ways. In some cases, they may not even have known that they were causing you concerns.
But if you feel this is not possible, you should raise your concerns with your manager, HR, or another manager if yours is implicated. You can insist action is taken to stop the unacceptable behaviours and against the perpetrator.
Before you do anything, make sure you are fully prepared. Doing so will give you more confidence to proceed with your complaint and increase your chances of a successful resolution.
Your preparation should involve:
- Familiarising yourself with those of your employer’s policies and procedures that relate to dealing with your circumstances (i.e. its harassment and/or grievance policies, and anything published on behavioural standards expected of its staff).
- Prepare a written record of all your concerns. This could include a diary tracking all incidents – with the dates, times, details of incidents, names of witnesses and how you were made to feel.
- Collate all available evidence. This could include emails, meeting records and performance feedback. Also ask colleagues to record what they have witnessed.
- Whenever you discuss your concerns with anyone in authority, follow this up with a written note or email. This will give you a tangible record of what was said or agreed.
- Seek professional guidance. This could include that provided by your union, charities (including some for whom we have links on this page), ACAS or the CAB, a solicitor, or WRS.
You can then be sure that you are ready to pursue your concerns further in a clear and effective way.
2. Harassment or grievance proceedings
Many employers – and in particular larger ones – will have a specific bullying and harassment policy. This will detail the behavioural standards required of everyone working for them. It will also detail the process to follow if you want to make a complaint of bullying or harassment.
Where there is a dedicated bullying and harassment policy, this is likely to involve:
- Encouragement to raise your concerns informally with either your manager or, if they are implicated, HR or another unconnected manager.
- Provision for a Formal Meeting, at which you can present your concerns to an independent investigating manager.
- An Appeal Meeting, if you are dissatisfied with the outcome of the investigating manager’s investigation.
- Details of likely sanctions for anyone found to have been engaged in bullying or harassment.
Whichever is the case, you will have the opportunity to raise your concerns at a Formal Meeting. And to exercise your legal right to be accompanied. To be sure your concerns are taken seriously and fully understood, we strongly recommend that you present at this meeting a Written Statement explaining your concerns. If you are being supported by WRS, we will help prepare this for you.
The investigating manager appointed by your employer will be responsible for conducting a thorough investigation. This will include interviewing the person or people you have said were engaged in mistreating you and any witnesses.
After completion of the investigation, you should receive a written Outcome Letter. This will summarise the investigating manager’s findings and detail any action to be taken to address your concerns.
If it is agreed that someone has been treating you inappropriately, it is likely they will face disciplinary proceedings.
If you are dissatisfied with the investigating manager’s findings, you have a right to follow an Appeal process.
3. Employment tribunal
If you don’t get the outcome you are seeking through your employer’s internal procedures, you may be able to take your employer at employment tribunal.
Here, there are two main types of case that you may be able to pursue:
- Equality Act 2010. You can bring a claim against your employer for damages caused by the harassment you have received. Here, you can remain in your job whilst pursuing such a claim and will receive legal protection from any retaliation by your employer.
- Constructive dismissal. This is an option if you feel you have been left with no alternative but to resign because of the bullying and harassment you have experienced. Or if your employer takes insufficient steps to resolve and remedy the situation.
You must commence employment tribunal proceedings within three months of the last example of the behaviours you are complaining about. To protect your position, you may need to trigger the start of legal proceedings before receiving an outcome from your employer’s internal proceedings.
It is important that you first make a complaint under your employer’s grievance or harassment proceedings before making an application to employment tribunal. Otherwise the compensation you may eventually receive could be decreased by as much as 25%.
4. Personal injury claim
You could have a case of personal injury against your employer if you have been seriously affected by the bullying or harassment – perhaps being unable to return to work because of the impact it has had on your mental health.
There is a three-year time-limit for submitting such claims.
This will require the professional guidance and support of a specialist lawyer. WRS can recommend one for you.
5. Settlement agreement
So long as you are able to present compelling evidence of mistreatment, your employer might consider offering you a Settlement Agreement. This might be considered the best way of offsetting the risk, time involved and cost of you pursuing legal proceedings against it.
How much financial compensation you could secure will depend upon the strength of your case. That is why it is so important you present your concerns in the clearest and most effective way possible. You can best achieve this with the support of an experienced union representative – such as one that WRS can arrange for you.
Read more here about Settlement Agreements.
If you are unfairly accused of being engaged in bullying or harassment
We occasionally come across situations where someone has maliciously been accused of bullying, harassment or other mistreatment.
Making an unwarranted complaint can sometimes be a cynical ruse to bully or manipulate someone else. For example, against a manager whose actions have in fact been entirely proper. Or to deflect from legitimate criticisms of performance or conduct.
Your employer will quite rightly still have to conduct an open and transparent investigation into the complaint. But if there has been a vexatious claim made against you, this should soon become clear.
As part of any investigation into a complaint against you, meetings you are required to attend will almost certainly be Formal. You will be asked specific questions about your conduct and behaviours and there should be a second person taking minutes. Therefore, because there is always a chance that things could go wrong, you should exercise your right to be accompanied.
Support from WRS
WRS can assist you in a number of ways if you have been bullied or harassed:
- We can provide with guidance on what to do – including assisting your preparation before submitting a complaint.
- We can prepare a Written Statement for you setting out in clear, concise and persuasive terms how you have been mistreated, your legal rights and your employer’s responsibilities.
- We can arrange for an experienced representative of a trade union to accompany you to all Formal Meetings – whether these are part of investigatory, grievance or harassment proceedings.
- We can ensure that you have a robust case prepared and ready to pursue through legal proceedings if required.
WRS will provide you with the absolute highest quality support to fulfil your workplace representation needs. We will maximise your chances of resolving your concerns without the need to resort to legal proceedings. But if you do, we will have ensured that you have the most robust legal case possible.
However, just as we are the workplace experts, we would recommend you use a specialist solicitor to pursue legal proceedings. We can recommend to you solicitors with whom we work, who we know will provide you with excellent support.