Bullying and harassment in the workplace

A GUIDE FOR EMPLOYEES                                     

Definition of bullying: Bullying is the unjust exercise of power of one individual over another by the use of means intended to humiliate, frighten, denigrate or injure the victim.

Definition of harassment : Harassment in general terms is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or as an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.

  • Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work
  • Bullying and harassment of any kind are in no one's interests and should not be tolerated in the workplace

Examples of bullying/harassing behaviour include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone by word or behaviour (particularly on racial, sexual or disability grounds)
  • Copying memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know
  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone - picking on them or setting them up to fail
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Unfair treatment
  • Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
  • Unwelcome sexual advances - touching, standing too close, the display of offensive materials
  • Making threats or comments about job security without foundation
  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism

Bullying and harassment are not necessarily face-to-face. They may also occur in written communications, electronic e-mail, phone and automatic supervision methods such as computer recording of downtime from work or the number of calls handled if these are not applied to all workers.

Bullying and harassment make someone feel anxious and humiliated. Feelings of anger and frustration at being unable to cope may be triggered. Some people may try to retaliate in some way, others may become frightened and demotivated. Stress, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem caused by harassment or bullying can lead to job insecurity, illness, absence from work and even resignation. Almost always job performance is affected and relations in the workplace suffer.

Responsiblities of employers 

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassing behaviour. It is in their interests to make it clear to everyone that such behaviour will not be tolerated. The costs to the business may include poor employee relations, low morale, inefficiency and potentially the loss of staff. An organisational statement to all staff about the standards of behaviour expected can make it easier for all individuals to be fully aware of their responsibilities to others.

There is a right to mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee; and if bullying and harassing behaviour are allowed to go unchecked, that could mean that such trust and confidence is lost. Employers are usually liable in law for the acts of their workers, and this includes bullying or harassing behaviour.

Why some people are targeted

  • They are perceived as a threat
  • They are popular and efficient

The target may be vulnerable because:

  • They have a different sexual orientation
  • They are female in a male environment
  • They are male in a female environment
  • They have a different ethnic background
  • They may have a disability
  • Of their age - perceived as too young or too old
  • They believe in doing their job properly
  • They are recently divorced, separated, or bereaved

What can you do?

Bullying and harassing are often clear-cut but sometimes people are unsure

whether or not the way they are being treated is acceptable. If this applies to you there are a number of things to consider, including:

  • Has there been a change of management or organisational style to which you just need time to adjust - perhaps because you have a new manager or work requirements?
  • Is there an organisational statement of standards of behaviour that you can consult?
  • Can you talk over your worries with your personnel manager, your line manager/supervisor, union representative or colleagues, who you may find share your concerns?
  • Can you agree changes to workload or ways of working that will make it easier for you to cope?
  • Try to talk to colleagues to find out if anyone else is suffering. Or if anyone has witnessed what has happened to you - avoid being alone with the bully
  • Keep a diary of all incidents - records of dates, times, any witnesses, your feelings etc. Keep copies of anything that is relevant, for instance letters, memos, notes of any meetings that relate to your ability to do your job. Bullying and harassment is often revealed  through patterns of behaviour and frequency of incidents. Keep records and inform your employer of any medical help you seek
  • Tell the person to stop whatever it is they are doing that is causing you distress, otherwise they may be unaware of the effect of their actions. If you find it difficult to tell the person yourself, you may wish to get someone else - a colleague, trade union official or confidential counsellor to act on your behalf
  • If you cannot confront the bully, consider writing a memo to them to make it clear what it is you object to in their behaviour. Keep copies of this and any reply
  • Be firm, not aggressive. Be positive and calm. Stick to the facts. Describe what happened.
  • If you do decide to make a formal complaint, follow your employer's procedures, which should give you information about whom to complain to and how your complaint will be dealt with
  • If you have access to a union representative or other adviser, ask them to help you state your grievance clearly, as this can help in its resolution and reduce the stress of the process. Most employers have a grievance procedure, which will be used to handle your complaint, and some organisations have special procedures for dealing with bullying or harassment. After investigating your complaint, your employer may decide to offer counselling or take disciplinary action against the bully/harasser in accordance with the organisation's disciplinary procedure.

 Mar 2020

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