Stamping out Bullying in the Workplace

Julian cole portrait.

Julian Cole

Senior Solicitor

Phone 01264 353411


It’s a question that employers everywhere should be asking, not least in light of recent stories in the press.

But eradicating bullying in all its forms isn’t straightforward. Among the challenges is that bullying can be insidious - an employer might not know it’s happening. Another difficulty is that one person’s perception of bullying may be another’s ‘robust management style’ or (the dreaded) ‘banter’. So it’s really important to understand what bullying is, so that it can be identified and dealt with.

What is bullying?

Bullying is different from other concepts like harassment and discrimination. There isn’t a legal definition that an employer can turn to. However, Acas offers some useful guidance. It says that bullying is:

‘Unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting; or

  • An abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.’

Acas gives as examples :

  • Spreading a malicious rumour.

  • Putting someone down in meetings.

  • Giving someone a heavier workload than everyone else.

  • Putting humiliating, offensive or threatening comments or photos on social media.

  • Undermining the authority of someone more senior.

Why bullying has to be taken seriously

Employers have a duty to take care of employees. Bullying, whether a one-off incident or a course of treatment, can take a huge toll on an individual’s physical and mental health. Performance can suffer and relationships can be harmed. And the target of the bullying may take sick leave, or even resign and bring a constructive dismissal claim based on their employer’s failure to take the right steps. Where bullying is connected to a protected characteristic (sex, race, age, for example), the employee may be able to claim discrimination.

Employers should put in place measures to avoid getting into these positions. The first thing we’d suggest doing is formalising a Dignity at Work policy. These set out what the employer considers to be respectful behaviour, steps an employee should take if they’re being bullied, and the ways in which the employer will respond. It’s a great opportunity to educate the workforce on unacceptable behaviours and routes to resolution. It also firmly sets out a commitment to zero-tolerance of bullying in all its forms, which can help build a positive, happy working environment.

We’d also suggest training managers to spot the signs and nip problems in the bud. All workplaces are different; behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated in one may be commonplace in another. But, ultimately, an employer’s responsibility towards each employee is the same – and individual traits and sensitivities have to be factored in.

This can be a complex area, particularly when there are opposing views about whether behaviour is bullying or not. For advice about a situation at work, or about putting in place mechanisms to prevent or tackle bullying, contact us on 01264 353411 or at

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