Bullying and harassment in the workplace

Bullying and harassment in the workplace are worryingly common and appear to be increasingly prevalent. According to a recent study, 75% of participants said they had been the victim of or had seen others being subject to, bullying or harassment at work.

The practice impacts the health and wellbeing of the victims and their loved ones. It also has a negative effect on the economy, with millions of working hours being lost through sickness absence because of stress and other mental health issues that arise from being bullied or harassed at work.

What is bullying and harassment at work?

For the purposes of this short practical guide, we are treating bullying and harassment behaviours at work as being the same, or at least very similar.

Most everyday definitions of bullying and harassment at work refer to behaviour by the perpetrator which is: unwanted, offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting.

Such behaviours result in the victim feeling intimidated, humiliated, insulted, degraded or similarly injured.

Harassment

If there is any real difference at all between bullying and harassment, it is that harassment is recognised in the 2010 Equality Act as being a form of discrimination if it’s carried out against someone who is protected under the Act.

In addition to being able to claim for discrimination under the Equality Act, there are other legal claims that you could make as a result of being bullied and harassed at work. These are all outlined briefly under the heading below about legal options to combat bullying and harassment.

Bullying

Bullying as something separate from harassment is not acknowledged in the Act. However, because the two behaviours are so similar, it tends to be regarded as a form of harassment for the purposes of the Equality Act if it has the same impact on the recipient as harassment does.

Examples of workplace bullying and harassment

The following are some common examples of bullying and harassment:

  1. Spreading unkind and false rumours about someone
  2. Insulting a person verbally or by way of gestures
  3. Making fun of someone, belittling, humiliating, picking on them
  4. Excluding them from social or professional activities/events
  5. Treating them unfairly
  6. Excessive supervision or other misuses of power
  7. Falsely threatening someone about the security of their job
  8. Setting up a worker to fail by giving them excessive amounts of work and constantly criticising them
  9. Blocking someone’s promotion or training opportunities

Top Tips

Alex Monaco
  • 1
    Bullying and harassment take many forms – if you feel you are being bullied or harassed, you probably are.
  • 2
    You don’t need to suffer in silence – raise your concerns and seek to resolve them (see below).
  • 3
    If you feel you need to resign because of bullying and harassment, try to negotiate an exit package before doing so.

What can you do if you’re being bullied and harassed?

So if you’re one of those unfortunate people who are being bullied and harassed at work, what can you do about it?

If you can identify with the examples mentioned above then you should not suffer in silence. As a first step, you should raise the matter with your employer. This can be done informally or you could put your complaint in writing.

Raising a grievance against bullying and harassment

Many employers, particularly larger ones, will have a written policy against bullying and harassment and you could make a complaint under such a policy or raise a grievance under any grievance policy.

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 gather your evidence by contacting witnesses (if any) to provide supporting statements to corroborate your account.

We offer a range of grievance letter templates for you to copy and adapt to your own situation.

Employer’s response to your grievance

Sometimes a formal written complaint in the form of a grievance can lead to the employer dealing with the matter head-on and putting things right.

Unfortunately, however, employers often string out the grievance process but have no intention of upholding the complaint, nor do anything to address it.

Even worse they may believe you to be a trouble maker and will consider how to manage you out of the business or get rid of you in some other way. In this scenario, there are two options: stay and fight for your rights, or leave.

How to collect evidence to support your complaint

If you stay you should keep a diary to log your complaints so that you have a good record of the exact treatment that you are being subjected to.

Again, you should gather all evidence and speak to witnesses as events occur, and read our article about keeping records.

You could also contemplate legal action, as outlined below.

Are you being bullied or harassed at work?

What legal claims can you make for bullying and harassment?

There is no single law directly prohibiting bullying and harassment per se in the workplace in the UK. Limited legal protection exists in other laws, as outlined below.

Discrimination

As mentioned earlier, if you’re an employee who’s been harassed because you have one or more of the ‘protected characteristics’ specified in the Equality Act 2010, then that is regarded as discrimination and therefore unlawful.

The characteristics that protect you against being harassed are:

age, disability, gender reassignment,  pregnancy and maternity, racereligion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.

So, if you are bullied or harassed because of your age, disability, gender reassignment status, etc. (as above) then you may have a potential claim for discrimination under the Equality Act.

See our guide on Discrimination for further discussion of harassment as an act of discrimination under the Equality Act.

Time limits for discrimination claims

There are strict time limits to bring your discrimination claim to an employment tribunal.

The deadline to commence the process to pursue legal action in a tribunal is 3 months less one day from the date of the discrimination. The deadline applies regardless of whether you have submitted a grievance or other internal complaint.

Personal injury

If you have suffered a physical or mental injury and you can medically prove it was caused by the bullying and harassment and has led you to suffer financial loss e.g. loss of income whilst being on sick leave, you have a potential claim for personal injury.

Time limits for personal injury claims

Personal injury cases usually have to be commenced within 3 years of the injury occurring.

Breach of contract

There are a number of obligations implied in every contract of employment, regardless of whether or not they are actually written into the contract. These include such obligations as; the duty of trust and confidence, the duty to deal with grievances without undue delay etc.

If your employer breaches these duties in relation to bullying and harassment, which leads you to suffer financial loss, then you have a potential claim for breach of contract.

Time limits for breach of contract cases

Breach of contract cases can only be pursued in the courts whilst you remain in employment and the deadline is 6 years from the date of the breach occurring.

Constructive dismissal

If you decide to resign on the back of being bullied and harassed at work, or resign in response to your employer’s failure to address it, then you could potentially have a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

You must have been employed by your employer for a minimum of two years prior to your resignation in order to pursue this type of claim.

Time limits for constructive dismissal cases

The deadline for beginning the process to make a constructive dismissal claim is 3 months less one day from the date your resignation took place.

Should you stay or leave your job?

Staying employed if you’re bullied and harassed

Staying with your employer and fighting for your rights when your employer refuses to address the bullying and harassment issues, is not for everyone.

  • It can have a negative impact on your health and you will need a lot of determination. It is in some senses a war of attrition; it could involve multiple grievances and counter-grievances and the end result is not certain.
  • If the bullying and harassment consist of unfair performance management then your decision to stick it out may be short-lived in any case, as your employer may be planning for this process to lead to your dismissal at some point

Similarly, pursuing legal action may not be a solution for everyone. This could be because the legal costs may be unaffordable or your lawyer tells you that your case doesn’t have reasonable prospects of succeeding from a legal perspective.

Leaving with a settlement agreement for bullying and harassment

If you are in the above situation, the other option available to you is to leave your employer. This is obviously not something you will do lightly as you stand to lose your income going forward unless you have something else lined up or are confident you will get an equivalent job soon after.

If you are contemplating this option then you should explore the possibility of your employer agreeing to pay you off and to leave under a settlement agreement.

This approach will avoid the time and stress of internal complaints procedures, and the time and cost of legal action whilst tiding yourself over financially between jobs.

Negotiating a settlement agreement

As bullying and harassment is in itself not strictly illegal (as mentioned above you can only pursue legal action in certain circumstances such as for discrimination, personal injury etc.) it may not always be straightforward to negotiate a decent settlement.

You could try to negotiate a deal yourself of course. However, you would need to ensure you were using the right negotiating tactics to be taken seriously and to secure the best deal in your circumstances.

It would be advisable to use the services of an experienced negotiator such as a trade union representative if you have one, or better still a lawyer with expertise in this area such as Monaco Solicitors (see below).

Any negotiation 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 freely adapt for use in your own circumstances.

Next steps

Do you want some expert advice on what to do about bullying and harassment at work?

Do you want help to negotiate a settlement agreement or make a claim for bullying and harassment in an employment tribunal or other court?

If so, then get in touch with Monaco Solicitors to see if we could help.  We are employment lawyers who only represent employees and are experts in successfully resolving bullying and harassment cases.

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