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Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is harmful, targeted behaviour that happens at work. It not only negatively effects the individual on the receiving end of the unwanted behaviour, but also can have a detrimental impact on the culture of the business, staff morale and productivity. It is in everyone’s interest to identify and address issues which arise, promptly, fairly and consistently.

A few examples of bullying include:

  • Persistent targeted practical jokes

  • Being purposely misled about work duties, like incorrect deadlines or unclear directions

  • Continued denial of requests for time off without an appropriate or valid reason

  • Threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse

  • Excessive performance monitoring

  • Overly harsh or unjust criticism

Employees should exercise a little caution and think objectively if they feel they are being bullied. An example of this might look like – objective and constructive criticism and disciplinary action directly related to workplace behaviour or job performance aren’t considered bullying. However persistent criticism meant to intimidate, humiliate, or single someone out without reason would be considered bullying.

The Extent

Bullying can happen in any workplace regardless of employer, size or sector. The TUC survey of safety representatives published in 2018, showed 45% of safety representatives listed it as one of their top five workplace concerns. Overall it was the second biggest workplace issue after stress. Bullying/harassment was worst in local and central government, (cited by, respectively, 80% and 71% of respondents from those sectors).

A large survey on bullying at work by the University of Manchester showed that:

  • 1 in 10 workers had been bullied in the last 6 months

  • 1 in 4 workers had been bullied in the last 5 years

  • 47% of workers had witnessed bullying at work

Another survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 20% had experienced some form of bullying or harassment over the past two years. The survey also reported that the groups most likely to become victims of bullying and harassment are black and Asian employees, women and people with a disability.

Nearly one third (29 per cent) of Asian employees or those from other ethnic groups report having experienced some form of bullying or harassment compared with 18 per cent of white employees. Employees with disabilities are at least twice as likely to report having experienced one or more forms of bullying and harassment compared with non-disabled employees.

Bullying or unwanted behaviour becomes harassment when directed meaningfully, persistently and directly at someone where their protected characteristic is the target:

  • age

  • disability

  • gender reassignment

  • pregnancy and maternity

  • race

  • religion or belief

  • sex

  • sexual orientation

Pregnancy and maternity are different from the other protected characteristics, in how the law on harassment treats them.

The Law

Although there is no one specific law that outlaws workplace bullying, that does not mean that employers do not have a legal duty to prevent it. All employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. That includes protection from bullying and harassment at work.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations also require employers to assess the nature and the scale of workplace risks to health and safety, ensure there are proper control measures in place, and take action to remove or avoid these risks wherever possible as far is as reasonably practical.

The Health and Safety Executive also states that “there should be systems in place to deal with interpersonal conflicts such as bullying and harassment”.

The Employment Rights Act 1996 allows employees to claim unfair dismissal if they are forced the leave their job because of actions by their employer or a failure to deal with any complaint. This can include failure by the employer to protect their employees from bullying and harassing behaviour. Often harassment is motivated by a workers sex, sexuality, race or disability and in these cases claim may also be able to be taken under the appropriate equality legislation. Causing a person harassment, alarm, or distress is also a criminal act and in certain circumstances the police can charge the harasser with a criminal offence.

Also, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, victims of harassment can seek civil injunctions against behaviour which causes distress.

What can you do to stop bullying?

Organisational Leaders

  • Review current policies and procedures. Do your policies and procedures address respecting one another in the workplace? Have you provided clear expectations regarding interactions among co-workers? Is there a clear channel for reporting workplace incivility or bullying?

  • Provide easy access to communication channels and support systems. Implement a clear method—that does not have recourse—for reporting incivility and bullying. Some organisations have free hotlines that employees can call to report instances of bullying or feeling targeted. Also consider implementing employee and customer surveys.

  • Process complaints fairly. Implement a standard investigation process to evaluate every reported incident. Establish a universal disciplinary policy for instigators of bullying. Be cautious in making exceptions for any internal or external customer who has been accused of incivility or bullying and ensure a thorough evaluation of the information gathered.

  • Implement training. Provide training for all employees in respectful communication protocols and the consequences of not adhering to them. Many organisations go a step further and train employees in skills to prevent, recognise, and respond to incidents of incivility, aggression, and bullying in their workplaces.

Managers and Supervisors

  • Keep your ear to the ground. Listen to employee concerns both formally and informally. You are closer to the employees than the senior level, so be aware of sudden shifts and pattern changes in behaviour.

  • Address concerns and all forms of aggression. Respectfully attend to employee concerns about incivility and disrespectful verbal aggression whenever it occurs. When necessary, follow through on progressive discipline.

  • Walk the talk. Treat your employees respectfully and encourage respectful interactions at all times through all communication channels. Managers and supervisors set the overall tone for workplace behaviour, and your employees are watching you for cues.

  • Arrange, support, and attend training. Provide ongoing training on respectful workplace interactions. Having employees acknowledge a policy during orientation isn’t enough. Employees need to know specific behaviours that are acceptable or unacceptable and be trained in how to handle incivility and bullying when it occurs.


  • Know that it starts with you. Take a look at yourself and your current work environment to understand how you’re being perceived and/or treated. If you feel you are being treated differently than before, are there any factors or changes that could explain it such as changes in schedule, supervisors, or assignments? Could any of these be contributing to your own sense of dissatisfaction? If you are being treated disrespectfully, have you brought it to the other person’s attention and asked them to stop (if it’s safe to discuss it with the person)?

  • Model and support ethical, respectful behaviour in your everyday interactions. To receive respect, you must give it. Are you treating others respectfully throughout all communication channels?

  • If someone does something that you feel is disrespectful, have a conversation with them (if you feel it is safe to do so). We can’t jump to the conclusion that an individual is a bully if we have not told them that their behaviour is disrespectful, as we haven’t given them the opportunity to understand our perception—and the opportunity to change.

  • If you see something, say something. While you may not be the target of a bully, if you witness disrespectful or uncivil behaviour, say something—either directly to the person if it’s safe to do so or to your supervisor, HR, or leadership team.

Attend and participate in training. Awareness training and skill building is essential for all employees and helps employees translate policies and procedures into everyday workplace behaviours.


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