Putting a stop to bullying at work

We would hope that school bullies would grow out of their bad habits when they become adults, but unfortunately instances of bullying still do occur in the workplace.

What is bullying?

Unlike harassment, the Equality Act does not provide a legal definition of bullying.

Acas defines bullying as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

It may be verbal, physical or non-contact. Examples include picking on someone, spreading malicious rumours, ostracising them, unfairly criticising their work or undermining them.

What claims could an employee lodge to an Employment Tribunal?

An employee cannot make a claim for bullying to an Employment Tribunal. If, however, it falls under the scope of harassment and concerns one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act, they may be able to submit a claim.

Under the Equality Act, harassment is defined as ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’. It can be in relation to someone’s age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

For example, you may be facing a claim for racial harassment if one of your managers is mimicking someone’s accent, making jokes about their country of origin and calling them derogatory and racist names.

Employment Tribunals will look at a number of factors when considering whether the act is a form of harassment, such as the employee’s perception, the circumstances of the case and whether or not it’s reasonable for the actions to be deemed as harassment.

Whilst certain types of behaviour such as over-zealous management, poor treatment, pranks, horseplay or industrial language may not amount to harassment under the Equality Act, they do bring about negative effects in the workplace. They may cause grievances, stress, absences, disengaged employees, resignations and constructive dismissal risks.

What are an employer’s duties?

Remember that anything that an employee does during the course of their employment may be deemed as having been also done by the employer, irrespective of whether the employer knew or approved the action or comment constituting harassment. In simple English, if one employee is found to have harassed another employee, the employer can be held responsible.

This does not just cover the workplace, but other work-related events. For example, if your summer work party takes place outside normal working hours away from the workplace, it still counts as a work-related event. You can assume that, in the eyes of the law, it will be considered ‘in the course of employment’ and as such, employers can be held liable for any acts of harassment carried out by their employees.

To avoid this, you must be able to prove that you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent employees from committing harassment in your workplace.

  • A good starting point is to develop a working environment where it’s clear that you will not tolerate bullying and harassment in your workplace.
  • Tell your employees that it’s their responsibility to ensure that their behaviour does not cause offence and to stop immediately if they are told that it’s unwanted or offensive.
  • You should also make them aware that all allegations will be investigated and disciplinary action will be taken when required.
  • It’s always helpful to have documented policies and procedures, detailing what your standards and expectations are in this regard. Where possible, train managers and supervisors to identify concerns and ensure that their management style does not step over the line.

If you are facing grievances of bullying, seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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