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Handling harassment and bullying at work

Luke Whitmore - Law on the Web

  1. 21 August 2015
  2. Employment
  3. 0 comments

A productive workplace calls for an atmosphere in which everyone is comfortable, but bullying and harassment at work can make your job intolerable. Regardless of whether the perpetrator claims it’s their management style, just ‘banter’, or gives any other reason, bullying and harassment in the workplace are unacceptable and could give rise to a potential legal claim.

What counts as harassment and bullying?

Bullying in the workplace essentially amounts to repeated unwanted conduct. It can be any offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour that could make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. It can take the form of physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct. It can come from anyone – co-workers, managers or even clients.

Bullying may be obvious – it might take the form of direct insults or mean-spirited pranks against you. Alternatively, it might be more subtle, and could involve things such as spreading rumours or blocking you from being promoted. Regardless of how it is done, it can have a powerful negative effect on the victim and their morale.

Bullying is unacceptable in the workplace, but in some situations it is actually against the law – when it crosses the line into harassment. This happens when the unwanted conduct is taking place because of what is known as a ‘protected characteristic’. Protected characteristics include:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender
  • race, including their nationality, skin colour or ethnic or national origins
  • religion or other strongly-held belief (or lack thereof)
  • sexual orientation
  • gender reassignment (whether you have undergone, are undergoing, or are planning to undergo it)

If people are mistreating you in the workplace on the basis of possessing any of these characteristics, then it could be classed as harassment and give rise to a potential claim at the Employment Tribunal. To amount to harassment, conduct must have the purpose or effect of violating someone's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

This can also apply if you are being bullied due to your association with someone possessing any of these characteristics - for example, if your spouse is disabled. It may also constitute harassment if your tormentors believe you to possess a protected characteristic - for example if they are bullying you because they think you are gay, even if you’re not.

Dealing with bullying and harassment

Regardless of whether you are being bullied or harassed, it’s best to act as soon as possible in order to resolve the matter amicably. The initial step should usually be an informal discussion regarding the issues, but if it is still not resolved then you should raise a formal grievance. Your workplace should have set procedures in place for dealing with a formal grievance.

If the bullying becomes so pervasive and unbearable that it drives you to resign from your role, you could potentially pursue a constructive unfair dismissal claim. Employers should not do anything to breach the mutual trust and confidence between themselves and their employees. Failure to take action if you are being bullied to such an extent that your working environment has become intolerable would be a breach of this expectation, and if you feel forced to quit because of it then you could make a claim for constructive dismissal at the employment tribunal.

If your mistreatment at work amounts to harassment, or has led you to resign and you intend to pursue an employment tribunal claim, you will need to contact the Advisory, Conciliatory and Arbitration Service (ACAS) before submitting an employment tribunal claim. They will give you the opportunity to undergo a process known as Early Conciliation, where they will try to help you and your employer reach an agreement on the issue rather than having to go through the formal employment tribunal process. If a resolution is not reached through ACAS, then you can pursue your claim and proceed at the employment tribunal.

For more on making an employment tribunal claim, see our page about problems at work.

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