Did you know almost a quarter (23%) of people in the UK feel that they have been bullied at work?

The terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ are often used interchangeably, but there are key legal differences.

Here’s our guide to what constitutes bullying in the workplace, why it is so damaging and how you can address it.

What is workplace bullying?

Bullying itself is not against the law. Although there is no legal definition, Acas says bullying “may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

The bullying might be a regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident.

While overt behaviours such as shouting or belittling a person usually come to mind, bullying is often covert and cumulative – a series of incidents that in isolation could be excused as simply a “bad interaction” with a colleague, a “strong personality” or someone being “overly sensitive”.

However, when you list all the incidents and look at them collectively, it can reveal a picture of an untenable working environment.

Bullying may be classed as harassment when it is about a protected characteristic under discrimination law (Equality Act 2010), such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation or disability.

What effect does bullying have?

Bullying can make working life miserable. It can be incredibly damaging to a person’s mental health, making them lose faith in themselves, quash their motivation and even feel physically ill.

From a financial point of view, bullying is also hugely detrimental to businesses. According to the Royal & Sun Alliance, it costs the UK economy about £18 billion a year.

A workplace with a bullying culture often lacks productivity, has poor client relations and a high turnover of people. This results in costs associated with training new employees as well as anti-bullying training, counselling, arbitration and potentially footing the bill for employment tribunals.

What can employers do?

Every employer has a legal duty of care to protect their people at work, and this includes dealing with bullying.

Here’s what you can do:

Create robust policies

Employers should have in place a robust and well-communicated policy clearly stating their commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work. It should include examples of bullying, how people can report it and the disciplinary procedures culprits could face.

Remember that your responsibilities may also extend to work-related activities, such as team parties or outings. Your policy should also address incidents of cyberbullying, which could take place outside of office hours, including the sending of offensive texts or the circulation of humiliating images on social media.

Provide training

All employees should be made clearly aware of the policy and the expectations around their behaviour. This could be achieved through induction training for new people and regular reminders at team meetings or whole company updates.

Make it simple to report

Those who experience or witness bullying should have clear routes to report it, as set out in your policy. These could include talking to their line manager, a member of HR, a trained staff representative or contacting an anonymous hotline.

And if someone makes a report, it’s essential that all leaders understand their role in addressing all forms of inappropriate behaviour and receive training on how to deal with this. They also need to know who to turn to for extra support and help when needed.

Deal with complaints promptly

Responding to all complaints shows that you take bullying seriously and upholds the values outlined in your policy. Depending on the nature of the report, an incident may be dealt with informally – such as sitting all parties down for a chat to explain their feelings – or more formal procedures could be enacted.

An independent third party could be called upon to provide mediation – a voluntary impartial process used to alleviate workplace conflict. A workplace investigation could also be instigated, opening the way for disciplinary steps to be taken.

Foster a climate of respect

Prevention is always better than cure. Ultimately, the best way to protect your people is to promote a positive and inclusive workplace culture, from the C-suite down. Everyone plays a role in making an organisation’s policies a reality and senior leaders should demonstrate strong values that clearly communicate the responsibilities individuals have to each other.

If you’re looking for help in developing your anti-bullying policy, contact Tell Jane. Our leading HR and ED&I consultants can guide you through the process, as well as provide support with mediation, workplace investigations and an anonymous reporting hotline. Email hello@telljane.co.uk to find out more.


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