What constitutes workplace bullying?

Bullying isn’t defined in the same way as harassment. Primarily, it’s not against the law.

Harassment is an illegal practice that involves unwanted behaviour or comments relating to an individual’s protected characteristics as defined by the Equality Act 2010; for example, someone’s sex, sexuality, gender, age, race, religion, beliefs, disability,  marital status or maternity/paternity and pregnancy.

Bullying tends to be defined as repeated acts of intimidation, hostility and humiliation. But regardless of the legalities, bullying is as devastating to the individual as harassment. We can all empathise with that niggling back-to-work Sunday evening dread (no matter how much we may love our jobs) but imagine that feeling multiplied by 100 and every, single day of the week…

And so bullying should be as much of a priority for an organisation, especially when the line between this and harassment is so often blurred.

What form does bullying take?

It can include:

  • Verbal abuse, offensive comments
  • Humiliating or ridiculing an individual and belittling their efforts in front of others
  • Deliberate exclusion from conversations, meetings, social events
  • Withholding information that a person needs to fulfil their role
  • Pranks, practical jokes, initiation ceremonies
  • Physical abuse
  • Rifling through, hiding or damaging personal property

Bullying may not necessarily involve an abuse of seniority, but – just like harassment (see our blog on power and harassment here) – it does involve an abuse of power or a motivation to gain or assert power by denigrating another. It can occur between colleagues, managers, departments, locations.

And as well as being multiple in its form, bullying can be carried out by more than one party and is not limited to being conducted by those within your organisation – that is, your clients or your suppliers.

How do you prevent bullying?

Employers have a duty of care to their people so a commitment to tackling workplace bullying is paramount, whatever the seniority of the perpetrator, whatever the value of the client – after all, do you really want your organisation associated with these types of individuals?

This commitment also needs to be made publicly to your people and accessible to them. Victims will be encouraged (and perpetrators discouraged) by being made aware of their rights and what to do if they are bullied in your workplace. It’s knowledge that is power, not the humiliation and intimidation of others, so give people the tools to tackle bullying.

Finally, give employees reassurance that allegations will be taken seriously, investigations carried out swiftly and sympathetically, and that victims will not be at risk of retaliation when bringing forward a complaint.

A word of caution

Similarly to negotiating the nuances of bullying and harassment, care needs to be considered when assessing issues that may arise due to the mentoring role of management. There is a marked difference between performance-related discussion – where areas for improvement are highlighted – or preferring to maintain distinct work-focussed relationships with colleagues, and bullying. We’ll explore this a little more in our next blog.


Work in HR? Interested in preventing harassment, discrimination and bullying at work? Or perhaps you want to learn about diversity and inclusion? Why not sign up to one of our upcoming seminars or events? Click here for more information

Interested in reading more?

Back to basics: a sexual harassment crib sheet

Back to basics: harassment and discrimination in the workplace

Back to basics: cultivating a culture of openness 

Not fit for the board

Leave a Reply

Back to top