Bullying in the Workplace – What It Is and How to Deal with It

bullying-in-the-workplaceBullying is not, and never has been, confined to the schoolyard. It can affect people of all ages, from all walks of life, in any kind of relationship. In the workplace, it can take many forms, but one thing remains constant: it needs to be addressed. If left to fester, workplace bullying can make your life a living hell, causing stress, depression, isolation, and physical illness. However, there are steps you can take to resolve the issue – so that you can once again live and work in peace.

Definition of workplace bullying

Before we can tackle workplace bullying, it is important to understand exactly what it is. The British Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) defines workplace bullying as:
Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, [or] an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Examples of workplace bullying

There are numerous forms of workplace bullying, none of which should be tolerated. Here are some examples:

  • Insulting or abusive comments or actions
  • Spreading malicious rumours about someone
  • Excluding or isolating someone
  • Constant criticism
  • Abusing one’s power over someone (targeted overbearing supervision, targeted overloading with work, blocking training opportunities, blocking paths to promotion)
  • Cyberbullying
  • Other forms of harassment (physical, sexual, etc.) and any of the above based on discrimination are also unacceptable, and should be dealt with in a similar way.

However, in the UK at least, they are more strongly regulated by law (see below).

What to do if you are being bullied in the workplace

DepressionThe most important thing to do is to decide to take action. Do not suffer in silence – you are entitled to work in a respectful, equal-opportunity environment. Here are a series of steps that you can take if you are being bullied in the workplace:
Name it. Decide on an accurate term to describe this behaviour. Is it bullying? Psychological harassment? Personal attacks? Gender discrimination? Having a clear understanding of what you are suffering will strengthen your argument – and protect you against rival definitions like banter or underperformance.

Compile evidence. Keep a diary of any incidents, including details like dates, times, witnesses, reactions, etc. Also keep a note of any related official files (memos, emails, notes, medical records, etc.).

Seek advice. There are many options available. You can talk to a friend, your boss, a staff representative, a union representative, or a counsellor. You can also contact the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, or the ACAS Helpline (0300 123 11 00). Be prepared to give specific examples and explanations.

Confront the bully/bullies. If and only if you feel comfortable doing so, confronting the bully may be enough to resolve the situation. They may not even be aware that their behaviour is causing such effects. If you choose to do so, do it in a calm, friendly, but firm manner, and again, be prepared to give specific examples and explanations.

Make a formal complaint. Many companies will have an official internal complaint process. Find out if yours does and follow it. If it doesn’t, seek advice from one of the sources listed above.

Seek legal advice. If you are unsatisfied with the results of a formal complaint or simply feel that legal action is necessary, you should consult a legal professional. If you are a member of a trade union, they may be able to cover your legal fees.

Resign. If the situation is such that your health and wellbeing are being affected and you see no end in sight, perhaps it is best to walk away. Depending on the circumstances, you may be entitled to certain legal protections even if you choose to do so.

The legal situation in the UK

Under UK law, workplace bullying differs from the criminal act of harassment. In the Equality Act (2010), 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.
The “relevant protected characteristics” in the above law are:
1. Age
2. Disability
3. Gender reassignment
4. Marriage and civil partnership
5. Race
6. Religion or belief
7. Sex
8. Sexual orientation
In other words, if you have been harassed, mocked, or ridiculed in a way related to any of those 8 characteristics, you are protected under UK law. You are similarly protected against sexual harassment under the EU’s Directive 2002/73/EC.
Bullying, if it does not relate to any of those 8 characteristics, is not necessarily unlawful. However, an Employment Tribunal offers some level of protection. According to ACAS, employers are legally responsible for their workers’ actions, so if you can prove workplace bullying, you can prove that they have failed in their legally required “duty of care” or their responsibilities under the Health and Safety Work Act (1974). Further, if you have worked for the company for over two years and are forced to resign as a result of workplace bullying, you can claim wrongful dismissal.

Workplace bullying is serious business. If it is not correctly addressed, it can severely affect the targeted individuals, the perpetrators, and the business itself. If you are a victim of workplace bullying, don’t suffer in silence – act today.