Bullying and harassment in the workplace

What is bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment in the workplace is worryingly common and is becoming increasingly prevalent. A recent study shows that 75% of participants had been the victim of, or had witnessed others being subject to, harassment or bullying at work.

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With millions of working hours being lost through work related stress and sickness absence, it is evident that this impacts on the health and wellbeing of victims and their loved ones and has a negative effect on the economy.

Top Tips

Alex Monaco

  • Bullying takes many forms – if you think that you are being bullied you probably are
  • You shouldn’t suffer in silence – raise your concerns with your employer and seek to resolve them
  • If you feel like you need to resign, seek to negotiate an exit package first

Examples of bullying and harassment in the workplace

The ACAS guide on bullying and harassment defines bullying at work as: “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

It provides the following examples of bullying:

  1. Spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone by word or behaviour; copying memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know;
  2. Exclusion or victimisation;
  3. Ridiculing or demeaning someone – picking on them or setting them up to fail;
  4. Unfair treatment;
  5. Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position;
  6. Making threats or comments about job security without foundation;
  7. Unwelcome sexual advances;
  8. Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism;
  9. Preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.

Options for dealing with bullying and harassment

What can you do if you are one of those unfortunate people being bullied at work? You should not suffer in silence if you can identify with any of the examples mentioned above. Firstly, the matter should be raised with your employer either informally or by putting a complaint in writing. 

Most employers, especially larger ones, will have a written policy against bullying and harassment which you can make a complaint under or you could raise a grievance under any grievance policy.

When writing a complaint or grievance, you should set out in detail what action or behaviour you are complaining about, when it occurred, who was involved, how it makes you feel and what you want your employer to do about it. You should also gather your evidence by contacting witnesses if any to provide supporting statements which corroborate your account. 

See our grievance letter templates for a range of grievance letters that you can copy and adapt to your own situation.

A formal written complaint or grievance could lead to the employer dealing with the matter head on and putting things right. However, employers often string out the grievance process with no intention of upholding the complaint, nor do anything to address it. Even worse they may consider you a trouble-maker and will consider how to manage you out of the business or get rid of you in some way. In this scenario there are two options: stay and fight for your rights, or leave.

If you decide to stay, you should keep a diary to log your complaints so that you have a record of the exact treatment that you are being subject to. Again, you should gather evidence and speak to witnesses as events occur, and read our article about keeping records. You could also contemplate legal action.

Legal options to combat bullying and harassment

You may be surprised to hear that there is no law directly prohibiting harassment and bullying per se at work in the UK. However, limited legal protection exists in other laws, the main ones are:

Discrimination

If the bullying or harassment is based on discriminatory grounds such as race, sex, disability etc. then you may have a potential claim for discrimination. There are strict time limits to bring a discrimination claim to an Employment Tribunal.

The deadline to start the process of pursuing legal action in a Tribunal is 3 months less one day from the date of the discrimination. The deadline will apply regardless of whether you have submitted a grievance or other internal complaint.

 Personal injury

If you have suffered a physical or mental injury that you can medically prove was caused by the bullying or harassment and has led you to suffer financial loss e.g. loss of income whilst being on sick leave, you could have a claim for personal injury. Personal injury cases have to be commenced within 3 years of the injury occurring.

Breach of contract

Obligations can be implied into every contract of employment, regardless of whether or not they are written into the contract. These include; the duty of trust and confidence, the duty to deal with grievances without undue delay etc.

If your employer is in breach of these duties in relation to the harassment or bullying, which causes you financial loss, then you may have a claim for breach of contract. Breach of contract cases can only be pursued in the courts whilst you are in employment and the deadline is 6 years from the date of the breach occurring.

Constructive dismissal

If you decide to resign due to the bullying and harassment at work, or resign in response to your employer’s failure to address it, then you could have a claim for constructive/unfair dismissal. To pursue this type of claim you must have been employed by the employer for at least two years’ service prior to your resignation. The deadline to commence the process of pursuing this claim is 3 months less one day from the date your resignation took place.

Negotiating an exit?

Staying with you employer and fighting for your rights, after being bullied and harassed, and when the employer refuses to address the issue is not for everyone. It can have a negative impact on your health and you will need a lot of fight to resolve this. In some senses it is a war of attrition; it could involve multiple grievances and counter-grievances and the end result is not always certain.

If the bullying and harassment includes unfair performance management, sticking it out may be short-lived in any case, as your employer may be planning for this process to lead to your dismissal.

Similarly, pursuing legal action as a response to being bullied or harassed may not be a solution for everyone because the legal costs may be unaffordable or your lawyer tells you that your case doesn’t have reasonable prospects of succeeding. In this situation, the other option available to you is to leave your employer. This is obviously not something you will do lightly unless you have something else lined up or are confident you will get an equivalent job soon after as you stand to lose your income. 

If you are contemplating this then you should explore the option of your employer agreeing to pay you off and to leave under a settlement agreement. This approach avoids the time and stress of internal complaints procedures, and the time and cost of legal action whilst tiding yourself over financially between jobs.

As bullying and harassment isn’t strictly illegal it may not always be straightforward to negotiate a good settlement.

You could try to negotiate a settlement yourself, however, to stand a better chance of being taken seriously and using the right negotiation tactics, it would be advisable to use an experienced negotiator such as a trade union representative if you have one, or better still a lawyer with expertise in this area. All negotiations should be done on a ‘without prejudice’ basis so that you have not committed to leaving your employment unless and until the deal is right for you.

For examples of  without prejudice letters, see our templates list which offers a variety of  without prejudice letters that you can adapt to your own circumstances.

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About the Author: MonacoSolicitors