Bullying in the workplace can be difficult to identify – what one person considers bullying another may see as a harmless joke. This ambiguity means many people simply live with bullying, never reporting it because they aren’t even sure that they are being bullied. However, in a survey conducted by the trade union, UNISON, as many as 60% of participants admitted that they’d either been the victim of bullying, or had witnessed a colleague being bullied. With this problem roughly affecting two-thirds of the workforce, it’s crucial that you’re able to identify the signs of bullying and help stamp it out – whether it affects you, or somebody you know.
What is bullying?
It’s not easy to neatly define bullying but generally speaking, it involves regular, intentional behaviour which leaves victims feeling threatened, intimidated, or offended, and works to break down their self-esteem.
Bullying behaviours might include:
- Spreading rumours,
- Being excluded or ignored,
- Verbal insults,
- Overbearing monitoring or supervision,
- Undue threats to job security,
- Being denied training, or promotion opportunities, or
- Unwelcome sexual advances
What are the effects of workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying can have a detrimental effect on an organisation, driving down productivity, increasing staff turnover – as well as the subsequent training costs. In fact, Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) estimates that bullying costs the UK economy over £18 billion every year. This is why managers should take every step to identify and stop bullying. Of course, the effects of bullying aren’t just financial; the personal effects of bullying are even more costly. Increased stress levels can lead to a number of physical and mental health issues including heightened anxiety, sleeplessness, high blood pressure, ulcers, depression, and suicidal thoughts. As
a result, job performance may suffer, fuelling anxiety about job security and feeding the negative emotional cycle further.
What can you do about bullying?
If you feel confident enough to do so, try talking to the bully yourself. Bullies will often shy away from direct confrontation – but remember to remain calm, civil and level-headed at all times. Explain to them that you find their behaviour unacceptable and that they should stop. If this doesn’t work, or you don’t feel comfortable confronting the bully alone then you should talk to somebody. This might be a friend/ colleague, a manager, an HR adviser, or a union representative. Having an ally will help relieve some of the stress, boost your confidence and they can act as a mediator, or in the case of a union representative, can act on your behalf. It’s a good idea to keep a diary or record of your interactions with the bully. It will help you later on if you decide to make a formal complaint. If you end up taking this route then you must follow your company’s grievance procedure – speak to your manager, or an HR representative about what this procedure is, and what you need to do.
Let’s first make a distinction between bullying and harassment. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but from a legal standpoint, they are very different things. As we’ve seen, bullying is any unwanted, deliberate and regular behaviour which makes a person feel threatened, offended or intimidated. Harassment involves the same behaviour but is specifically directed at a protected characteristic.
These protected characteristics are:
- Gender (including gender reassignment)
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief, and
- Sexual orientation
If you’re being bullied in relation to any of these characteristics then you’re being harassed, and this is a crime under the Equality Act 2010. If you’ve tried every other avenue to resolve the issue and you’re still being harassed, then you can put your case forward to an employment tribunal. Legally speaking, bullying doesn’t exist – only harassment is protected by law. This means that a bullying case which isn’t related to a protected characteristic can’t be taken to an employment tribunal. However, if you’ve tried all other ways to resolve the issue, but are forced to resign because the bullying continues, then you can make a claim for constructive dismissal. Employers
have a “duty of care” to their employees, and if you resign due to bullying, that could be considered a breach of their duty. If your mental or physical health has been affected, then this could also be considered a failure to protect your health and safety – which is covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.