Bullying and harassment in the workplace

What are bullying and harassment?

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 on the health and wellbeing of the victims and their loved ones and has a negative effect on the economy, with millions of working hours being lost through sickness absence for work-related stress.

Top Tips

Alex Monaco
  • 1
    Bullying takes many forms – if you feel you are being bullied you probably are
  • 2
    You don’t need to suffer in silence – raise your concerns and seek to resolve them
  • 3
    If you feel you need to resign, seek to negotiate an exit package before doing so
Are you being bullied at work?

Examples of  bullying and harassment in the workplace

The first thing is to recognise the definition of bullying and harassment. The ACAS guide on bullying and harassment at work 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”.

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. Ridiculing or demeaning someone – picking on them or setting them up to fail;
  3. Exclusion or victimisation;
  4. Unfair treatment;
  5. Overbearing supervision or other misuses of power or position;
  6. Unwelcome sexual advances;
  7. Making threats or comments about job security without foundation;
  8. Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism;
  9. Preventing individuals from progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.

Options for dealing with bullying and harassment

So if you’re one of those unfortunate people who are being bullied 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.

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.

Sometimes a formal written complaint or 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.

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.

Want legal help to stop being bullied?

Legal options to combat bullying and harassment

You may be surprised to learn that 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, the main ones are:



If the bullying or harassment is based on grounds of race, sex, disability etc. then you may have a potential claim for discrimination. There are strict time limits to bring your 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.

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 the bullying and harassment, which leads you to suffer financial loss, then you have a potential claim for breach of contract.

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’ service prior to your resignation in order to pursue this type of claim. The deadline to commence the process to pursue such a claim is 3 months less one day from the date your resignation took place.

Negotiating an exit?

Staying at the employer and fighting for your rights, in the face of being bullied and harassed, 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 resolve. 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 consists 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 in response to being bullied and harassed 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.

If you are in this 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.

As bullying and harassment is in itself not strictly illegal (as mentioned above you can only pursue legal action in certain circumstances: 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, to stand a better chance of being taken seriously and using the right negotiation tactics 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.

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.

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