What is bullying at work?
Bullying at work can take many forms. Are you on the receiving end of intimidating, malicious, offensive or insulting treatment, or behaviour designed to denigrate, injure, undermine or humiliate you? Bullying and harassment can be hard to define, is sometimes subtle, and may come from individuals or groups of people over a period of time.
Examples of bullying
Bullying and harassment in the workplace can include:
• Being humiliated in front of customers or colleagues
• Receiving physical or verbal abuse, unwelcome teasing, practical jokes and banter
• Being blamed for issues and problems caused by others
• Excessively unfair criticisms, removal of responsibilities
• Being unfairly blocked from promotions or denied holiday and training opportunities
• Being excluded from team activities, meetings or relevant emails
• Receiving baseless threats about your job security or regularly being threatened with the sack
• Being routinely overworked and having unrealistic expectations placed on you, which are impossible to achieve
What is discriminatory harassment at work?
Harassment describes unwanted conduct that violates your dignity in the workplace, or makes it a hostile, degrading or offensive environment for you. Harassment is also a form of discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, when it relates to certain ‘protected characteristics'. These include bullying connected to:
• Sexual orientation
• Pregnancy or Maternity Leave
• Marriage or civil partnership
• Gender reassignment
• Religion or belief
Examples of harassment
Examples of harassment and discrimination in the workplace can include:
• Being treated unfairly because of your sexuality, gender, race or beliefs
• Receiving unwanted sexual advances from a colleague
• Being subjected to homophobic comments
• Being teased about a disability• Receiving offensive materials, such as emails with sexual content
Behaviour doesn't have to be directed towards you to qualify as harassment. For example, if your colleagues make discriminatory comments or jokes within your earshot, this can count as harassment.
Bullying and harassment doesn't have to happen face-to-face
It's important to be aware that bullying and harassment don't necessarily occur to face-to-face. Communications in writing, including emails, and phone calls are just as relevant.
Not all examples of bullying and harassment are obvious, others are much more subtle - but no less devastating for victims. This means it's vital that you understand your rights at work and when unfair treatment goes past the limit, so that you are able to respond appropriately.
Anxiety and stress
If you are forced to endure bullying and harassment at work, this can have major implications in terms of your health and wellbeing. It can make you anxious and stressed, and it might also leave you feeling angry or humiliated. In turn, this could cause your self-esteem and confidence to suffer. Your ability to do your job effectively might also be compromised and you may find that you're more prone to illness and absences from work. You might even feel forced to resign from your role, with major implications for your career.
What responsibilities does my employer have?
You should never feel as though you simply have to accept bullying or harassment as part of your job. Your employer has a duty of care to prevent you from facing this behaviour in their workplace. They have responsibilities to protect your welfare, and they must take action against unlawful harassment.
What should I do if I am being bullied or harassed?
Sadly, many people do experience bullying and harassment in the workplace at the hands of colleagues or managers. Unfortunately, because it is such a horrible experience, many people simply put up with the abuse or in some cases leave their roles without being aware of their legal rights to take action about it.
To ensure this doesn't happen to you, if you think you are being bullied or harassed, take steps to protect your rights and prove your complaint. It's a good idea to keep a record of the dates, times and locations of any incidents of negative behaviour. Document what is said or done and make a note of any witnesses who can back up your claims. It's also useful to find out if other workers have experienced similar problems.
Make a note of how the bullying or harassment made you feel, including any effects it has had on your work and your health and wellbeing.
If it is safe, ask the harasser to stop
If you think it's safe to do so, consider speaking to the person who is harassing you and asking them to stop. Make it clear that you don't like what they are doing, you find it offensive and you will have to take further action if they don't stop. One way to do this is to ask the harasser to have an informal discussion with you - and invite a colleague who you trust to be there when the discussion takes place. Make sure you know what you want to say before these exchanges take place, and try to stay calm and polite. Keep a detailed note of the discussion in a safe place.
If you don't feel able to speak to the harasser, another option is to write to them or to ask someone else to write to them on your behalf. Make sure you keep a copy of all correspondence if you do this.
Speak to your manager
Another approach is to talk to your manager. If your immediate manager is the person who is bullying you, approach a more senior member of staff, or go to the human resources department instead.
Your employer should investigate your complaint and may be able to take a number of actions, such as requiring the harasser to apologise and stop their behaviour or moving them to another workplace. If you are offered another role within your organisation, this could also be a solution, provided it's no less favourable than your current job and you are happy to move teams.
Take legal action
Unfortunately, speaking to harassers or escalating these concerns to senior members of staff or HR departments does not always resolve the problem. If your employer fails to take your complaint seriously or the harassment doesn't stop, you may need to make a formal complaint. If this doesn't have the desired effect, you should consider legal action. There are a range of claims which may be available to you, depending on the full circumstances.
Take legal advice as soon as possible since it can be important to act fast. Please be aware that time limits are very tight in tribunal cases, usually requiring you to issue a claim three months less one day from the date on which the detrimental treatment or dismissal occurred.
If you are thinking about bringing forward an employment tribunal claim, note that you will first have to inform the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), providing it with details of your case. The organisation will offer early conciliation in a bid to resolve the dispute. This period of conciliation can last for up to a month. If the claim isn't settled within this time, ACAS will provide a certificate stating that the mandatory process of conciliation has concluded - and you can then proceed with your legal claim.
This mandatory period of conciliation doesn't count for the calculation of the time limit in which you have to bring your legal case.
If you've experienced harassment and bullying that has caused you a psychiatric injury, you may be able to make a claim in the County Court for the damage to your health. If employment law doesn't apply to your situation or you are out of time to bring a claim, this may also then be a potential alternative option.
What if you resign as a result of bullying or harassment?
If you have to resign because of the way you are being treated at work, you might have a case for unfair constructive dismissal. This is when a worker is forced to resign from their position against their will because of the conduct of their employer.
Think carefully before you take the step of leaving your job though. Not everyone has the right to claim constructive dismissal, so it's important to check your legal position before you resign.
The law exists to protect employees and people in a workplace.
Don't suffer in silence. Employees are encouraged to seek employment law advice from their Trade Unions if faced with such situations before things escalate. What usually starts like ‘banter' may escalate to unwanted conduct and becomes a norm. If you need help and you're not sure what to do, you can seek legal advice from your Trade Union, Solicitors, Citizens Advice Bureau, etc or contact us.
Muchie Shamuyarira (Chartered Member of CIPD - UK)
HR & Industrial Relations Director and also Employment Law Consultant in the UK
Mobile: 077 2385 4713 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.employment-rights.com
Disclaimer: This article is written in a personal capacity. It is not intended either as a substitute for professional advice or judgment or to provide legal or other advice with respect to particular circumstances.
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