Workplace Bullying & Harassment – How to Handle It

Despite increased awareness of the problem, bullying and harassment in the workplace is rising. Almost a third of the UK workforce have suffered from bullying, and that’s just the reported cases. That equates to over nine million people which, to put into perspective, is more than the combined populations of Wales and Scotland. However, there are many unreported incidents and a number of reasons why people don’t feel able to report being bullied. They feel it’s not significant enough; they might not be taken seriously or be seen as weak; or, where the bully is in a senior position, that their work prospects will be harmed. Many leave their job as a result.

Too often bullying is not seen as a serious issue by employers who dismiss it as a personality clash, character building or a manager’s style of leadership. In 72% of reported cases, the perpetrator is a manager. The problem is that bullying takes many forms from subtle innuendo to blatant provocation and, with the prevalence of technology, there are an increasing number of incidents of cyberbullying. Also, there isn’t a specific type of person who becomes a bully.

Employers have a duty of care towards their employees under the Health & Safety at Work Act and failing to take appropriate action when bullying or harassment is reported to them can ultimately render them liable to prosecution.

The Impact of Bullying on Health

The victims of bullying or harassment can suffer long-lasting psychological injuries such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression. For those who have previously been treated for depression, the condition becomes much worse. In addition, there can be feelings of guilt and shame for “allowing” themselves to be controlled, and anger at the injustice of the situation. Victims tend to take many more sick days as they struggle to cope. Around a third admit to considering suicide, with some tragically taking that step as the burden becomes too much to bear.

It’s not just the direct victim of bullying who suffers. It can have an impact on their home and family life as well, with them being moody and subdued or bad-tempered. In some extreme cases, it can lead to domestic abuse as they take out their frustrations on those closest to them.

What is Bullying?

Bullying can be carried out by an individual or a group and is behaviour which is malicious, insulting, intimidating or offensive making the victim feel humiliation, or leaving them upset, vulnerable or afraid.

While bullying is not specifically illegal, it can be classed as harassment which is against the law under the Equality Act 2010. According to the act, harassment is defined 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”.

The protected characteristics include age, sex, sexual orientation, relationship status, pregnancy, race, religion, disability and political beliefs.

Signs of Bullying and Harassment

Most harassment and bullying is a misuse of power, often by someone who is covering up their own inadequacies. It can take the form of constant criticism where, although you know you are doing a good job, the bully undermines you. Also, if you are overloaded with work, compared to your colleagues, and given unrealistic deadlines you are being set up to fail which can damage your self-confidence.

A bit of workplace banter is generally a good thing, but if you find that the jokes are always at your expense, that is bullying. The jokes will often negatively highlight a characteristic or personality trait.

Being passed over for promotions or denied training which would further your career prospects, while you see less qualified colleagues being pushed ahead of you is a subtle form of bullying.

It’s normal to have gossip and rumours going around the workplace, but when they are frequently designed to damage your reputation or undermine you with your co-workers, you have grounds to report it as harassment.

Sexual harassment can be inappropriate touching, standing too close making you feel uncomfortable, displaying offensive material or offering career advancement based on sexual favours.

How to Deal with Bullying

You need to deal with the bullying or harassment as soon as you are aware that it’s happening. Keep a record of all the instances when the harassment occurs and speak to someone about it.

Bullies don’t like to be confronted with their behaviour and in some cases having a quiet word with them in a calm manner can be enough to put a stop to it. Failing that you should speak to someone else, preferably in a senior position or, if applicable, a union representative.

Should the harassment continue you need to make an official complaint. When an employer receives a report of an employee being harassed, they are obliged by law to take action. Initially, they can follow the company’s grievance procedure, but if that doesn’t resolve the situation, it can be escalated to a disciplinary matter.

If you feel that the harassment is having an effect on your health, go and see your doctor before it gets worse. They may recommend counselling and/or medication and, if they are concerned about your wellbeing, they might sign you off from work. Keep a note of every visit as evidence in case the matter is escalated.

In cases where the situation is not being adequately dealt with and the bullying gets to the extent where you feel your only option is to leave the company, you could have a valid claim for compensation. Contact a legal expert who specialises in employment claims and they will advise you how to claim compensation for harassment at work.

Stopping Bullying

It is very much to the advantage of the employer to make sure that bullying does not happen in the workplace. It lowers morale, reduces productivity and increases the amount of sick leave taken. A happy workforce is a productive one.


Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash