Bullying may seem like a word we left behind in the playground, but sadly it’s an everyday
occurrence in workplaces across the UK.
According to SME Loans, who conducted a survey of 2,000 UK-based employees, 23% had been
bullied, 25% said they felt left out at work and 12% admitted to struggling to make friends in the
It’s no wonder, then, that bullying is the focus of many workplace investigations. Here’s a rundown
of everything you need to know about bullying – what it is, what it looks like, and what to do if you
receive a complaint.
So, what is bullying?
The terms bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably, but there are key differences.
Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment refers specifically to ‘unwanted conduct related to a
relevant protected characteristic’ such as age, race, disability, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
Bullying, on the other hand, has no definition by law, but Acas says it 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’.
What does bullying in the workplace look like?
Although there is no legal definition, bullying at work includes:
Spreading malicious rumours about someone
Excluding someone from team events
Consistently putting someone down in meetings
Deliberating giving someone a heavier workload than others
Uploading humiliating or offensive comments or photos on social media
Bullying may happen face-to-face or (and especially in an ever-increasing world of hybrid working)
via emails, calls or social media. It may even happen at a work-related event, such as after-work
drinks or a Christmas party.
It could be a regular pattern of behaviour or a one-off incident. The behaviour may also not always
be obvious or noticeable to others, or could be shrugged off as simply a “bad interaction” or
someone being over-sensitive. But when incidents are listed and looked at collectively, they paint a
picture of an untenable working environment for the victim.
Why does bullying occur in the workplace?
Thinking back to those playground days, the motivations of bullies then do not differ a great deal
from the motivations of those in today’s workplace.
Most incidents are fuelled by a bully’s own lack of self-esteem and feeling threatened by a highly
competent colleague, especially if they receive frequent praise from a manager. Bullying helps to
hide the areas of their work that need improvement.
Bullies are also opportunistic and may choose a victim in order to advance their own career. By
targeting someone who is less confident or new, they can slow the progress of their “rival” or
manipulate situations to transfer blame for their own incompetencies to their vulnerable victim.
Some employees may be targeted because of a protected characteristic, such age, gender or race.
This behaviour would then fall under the legal definition of harassment.
Why is it important to prevent bullying?
When bullying occurs in the workplace, it can impact an individual mentally and physically. It can
lead to anxiety and stress, which detrimentally affects blood pressure and the ability to sleep.
From a work perspective, bullying can affect an employee’s ability to do their job, including
difficulties in concentration, poor decision making and errors in their work. Ultimately, if the bullying
continues, it can cause absenteeism and the employee to leave, robbing an organisation of key
How can someone make a report of bullying at work?
Every employer has a legal duty of care to protect their people at work, and this includes
encouraging the reporting of and dealing with bullying.
It is important to have well-communicated and easily-accessible policies and procedures in place
that clearly outline how victims of bullying, or those that witness incidents of bullying, can lodge a
A number of reporting lines can be offered, including speaking to a manager, an HR representative
or a specifically trained member of staff. Organisations may also offer an anonymous reporting
hotline which provides a safe platform for employees to raise concerns and facilitate bystander
What happens when a report is made?
All complaints should be taken seriously and dealt with promptly.
If the complaint isn’t at the serious end of the spectrum, you may wish to resolve the issue
informally, either through the behaviour being addressed directly by a manager or HR professional,
or through mediation – a process run by an independent third party which both parties voluntarily
participate in to manage workplace conflict.
If informal approaches aren’t appropriate or don’t work, formal procedures – such as a workplace
investigation – should be triggered.
Who should undertake a workplace investigation?
An investigation should be undertaken by a trained in-house professional, with no personal or
professional stakes in the outcome, to ensure a fair and impartial process.
Due to the often insidious nature of bullying, it may not be obvious to many that the complainant
was the victim of unacceptable behaviour, and what is deemed unacceptable to one person is not to
another. Sometimes, the person being accused of bullying doesn’t even realise their behaviour
constitutes bullying, however even if the bullying wasn’t intended it does not mean that it did not
For these reasons, the chosen investigator must be able to keep an open mind, listen carefully, leave
any personal feelings at the door and not make assumptions.
If a grievance is particularly serious, involves senior employees or if there are not enough levels of
seniority to escalate the case, working with an external investigator is recommended.
What is involved in an investigation?
In a disciplinary procedure, the person investigating should be gathering evidence to discover if
there is an issue to be addressed, not try to prove guilt.
They should do their best to:
Be fair and objective
Follow any policies and procedures their organisation might have
Keep the case confidential
Gather as much balanced evidence as possible from both sides
Present findings in a transparent and comprehensive report.
Where can I find more support?
Tell Jane offers a wide range of services to support fair, inclusive and impartial workplace
investigations into bullying. These include thorough training for in-house investigators and carrying
out independent investigations on behalf of organisations across the UK, as well as an anonymous
employee hotline service, mediation service and anti-bullying and harassment training.
Email email@example.com to find out more.
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