Bullying and harassment in the workplace

Tina ClaytonWhat’s the law?

You will often hear the words bullying and harassment used interchangeably and, while there are certain legal differences between the two, both can have serious implications for employers who haven’t taken all reasonable care to prevent them from happening.

Employers and individuals can be ordered to pay unlimited compensation where discrimination-based harassment has occurred, including compensation for injury to feelings.

From a legal point of view, bullying is characterised as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to humiliate, denigrate, or injure the recipient”. Meanwhile, harassment is “unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace”. This may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual.

Since October 2006 UK discrimination law has covered harassment on a variety of grounds. Bullying isn’t covered by one single piece of legislation, but there are a number of laws that offer legal protection for employees, including the Human Rights Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the Employment Rights Act to name just a few.

What does bullying and harassment look like?

Harassment and bullying can range from extremes such as physical violence to less obvious forms like simply ignoring someone. Again it can be persistent behaviour or a one-off act. Examples include:

• Physical contact which is unwanted
• Unwelcome remarks about a person’s age, dress, appearance, race or marital status
• Jokes, offensive language, gossip, slander, sectarian songs and letters
• Posters, graffiti, obscene gestures, flags and emblems
• Isolation or non-cooperation and exclusion from social activities
• Coercion, sexual favours
• Pressure to participate in political/religious groups
• Intrusion by pestering, spying or stalking
• Failure to safeguard confidential information
• Shouting at staff
• Setting impossible deadlines
• Persistent criticism and personal insults

How can it be tackled?

Tackling workplace bullying and harassment is a joint responsibility of the organisation and the individuals working within it and there are a number of ways to ensure all reasonable care is taken.

Clear company policies on bullying and harassment are essential and these should be agreed with union or employee representatives (where appropriate), communicated to all employees through induction and training, and be monitored and regularly reviewed for effectiveness.

All employees should be made aware who to contact with their concerns. Formal allegations of harassment, bullying, or intimidating behaviour should be treated as a disciplinary offence with a prompt, thorough, and impartial response from independent, skilled, and objective investigators.

For more information on introducing bullying and harassment policies, and conducting investigations into bullying and harassment, speak to your professional HR advisor.

Tina Clayton, HR consultant and employer services manager with Moore and Smalley Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors.