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Bullying and harassment at work – a guide

Table of contents

What is bullying and harassment in the workplace

“Bullying” can extend to a variety of different types of conduct but is normally defined as the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. The behaviour if often repeated and habitual.

“Harassment” is the exhibiting of unwanted conduct related to a 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.

Together, bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended and the terms are often used interchangeably.

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Examples of bullying and harassment in the workplace

  • Spreading malicious rumours about you or someone else, or insulting someone in word or in behaviour
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Unfair treatment
  • Ovebearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, including touching, displaying sexual materials, asking for sexual favours etc.
  • Making threats or comments about job security without foundation
  • Overloading you with work or constantly criticising you
  • Preventing you from progressing at work by blocking training or promotion opportunities for you
  • Demoting you unfairly

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Bullying and harassment cases in the newspapers

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How to deal with bullying and harassment in the workplace

If you believe that you have been bullied or harassed in the workplace then you have a number of options open to you that you may wish to pursue:

  1. Talk to those who you believe are bullying and harassing you
  2. Informal grievance
  3. Formal grievance
  4. Consider making or threatening a claim against your employer or your colleagues
  5. Contact ACAS
  6. Talk to an employment law expert

Talk to those who you believe are bullying and harassing you

If possible and appropriate, you should first try and talk to those who you believe are bullying you in the workplace – addressing the issue directly may resolve the whole problem.

Informal grievance

If you don’t feel able to talk to those bullying you or, alternatively, you don’t think it’s appropriate to talk to them, you should submit an informal grievance to either your line manager or someone else in a position of authority. This grievance should preferably be in writing and should address why you are complaining and provide sufficient facts to allow for someone to deal with the grievance. If you don’t feel that it is appropriate to give your informal grievance to your line manager (for example, if you believe that it is your line manager bullying you) then you may wish to submit the informal grievance to someone else in a position of authority.

Formal grievance

If you are unwilling or unable to make an informal grievance, or your informal grievance isn’t resolved to your satisfaction, then you can make a formal grievance to your employer. This grievance should preferably be in writing and should address why you are complaining and provide sufficient facts to allow for someone to deal with the grievance. If you don’t feel that it is appropriate to give your formal grievance to your line manager (for example, if you believe that it is your line manager bullying you) then you may wish to submit the formal grievance to someone else in a position of authority.

If you don’t think that your employer has reached a fair decision relating to your grievance or there has been some form of procedural defect in handling the grievance then you should be informed that you can appeal against the grievance outcome (as well as to whom the grievance outcome should be submitted and the time frame in which you should submit the grievance).

Consider making or threatening a claim against your employer or your colleagues

If you are unable to resolve your bullying and harassment complaint at the grievance stage then you may wish to make or threaten to make a claim against your employer. The nature of the potential claims that you can make is dealt with below at Legal remedies against bullying and harassment in the workplace. It is strongly recommended that you obtain independent legal advice on your bullying and harassment claim before making or threatening a claim in the civil courts or tribunal.

Contact ACAS

ACAS act as “conciliators” in employment disputes – they do not and cannot give legal advice but act as an information conduit between you and your employer. If you wish to try and negotiate some form of agreement with your employer then you may wish to contact ACAS and see if your dispute can be resolved through conciliation.

If you are thinking of bringing a claim in the Employment Tribunal then you must first obtain an ACAS Early Conciliation certificate. You can obtain this certificate by submitting the details of your case to ACAS and going through the ACAS Early Conciliation process. A failure to obtain your certificate will generally mean that you are prevented from making an Employment Tribunal claim, unless exceptional circumstances apply.

Talk to an employment law expert

If you are thinking of making or threatening a claim against your employer, or simply want advice on your employment dispute and the best way to handle it, then you should contact a specialist employment lawyer.

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Legal remedies against bullying and harassment in the workplace

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassing behaviour. If you are being bullied or harassed in the workplace then you may have the following legal remedies:

  1. A claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997
  2. A claim for harassment under the Equality Act 2010
  3. A claim for constructive dismissal under the Employment Rights Act 1996
  4. A claim for failing to protect your health and safety under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
  5. A claim for negligence under the common law

These claims are addressed below.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Although the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was originally intended to allow the victims of stalking to sue their harassers, the well-known case of Majrowski v Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust extended protection under the Act to employees suffering from bullying and harassment in the workplace. Under the Act a person must not pursue a course of conduct which he or she knows or a reasonable person would know amounts to harassment of another person. In order to succeed with a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, a claimant must show:

  • Conduct which occurred on at least two occasions;
  • Which targeted the claimant;
  • Was calculated in an objective sense to cause distress; and
  • Which is objectively judged to be oppressive and unreasonable

A claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 must be made in the civil courts, not the Employment Tribunal.

The benefits of making a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, rather than a claim in the Employment Tribunal (such as a claim for constructive dismissal or harassment) are as follows:

  • The limitation period for the claim is much longer at six years, rather than the three months for a claim in the Employment Tribunal
  • Compensation for anxiety and financial loss is recoverable without the claimant having to prove that they have suffered an identifiable personal injury
  • The harassment can be on any grounds so the protection is all-encompassing (this is not the case with, for example, a claim for harassment under the Equality Act 2010 where the claimant will have to show that the conduct towards them was because of a protected characteristic that they or someone else possesses, such as race or age);
  • The claimant’s costs are recoverable if they succeed with a claim in the civil courts – in the Employment Tribunal costs are generally not recoverable from the losing side

Please note, however, that one of the risks of making a claim in the civil courts (unless it is in the small claims court) is that if you lose then you will generally be responsible for the costs of the other party.

Harassment under the Equality Act 2010

You may also make a claim under the Equality Act 2010 if you think that you have been bullied or harassed because of a protected characteristic that you or someone related to you possess (i.e. your age, race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender orientation, marriage or civil partnership status and/or religious or philosophical belief). In order to succeed with a claim for unlawful harassment under s.26 of the Equality Act 2010 you must show:

  1. That you have been subjected to unwanted conduct
  2. That this unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that you or someone else possesses
  3. That this unwanted conduct had the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or , humiliating you, degrading you, creating an offensive work environment for you

A claim under s.26 of the Equality Act 2010 must be made in the Employment Tribunal and must be made within three months less one day of the date that the harassment occurred (or that you became aware of it).

More information on s.26 of the Equality Act 2010 can be found on this page: Harassment at work – a brief guide

Example
Paul is disabled and is claiming harassment against his line  manager after she frequently teased and humiliated him about his
disability. Richard shares an office with Paul and he too is claiming harassment, even though he is not disabled, as the manager’s behaviour has also created an offensive environment for him

A claim for negligence under the common law

If you have suffered some form of personal injury (a mental or a physical injury) because of bullying or harassment that you have been subjected to in the workplace then you may be able to make a claim for the tort of negligence against your colleagues or against your employer.

A claim for constructive dismissal

If your employer has failed to deal with bullying and harassment in the workplace properly then it may have breached the term of mutual trust and confidence that is implied into your contract of employment. If this is the case then you may be able to bring a claim for constructive unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal.

A claim for constructive dismissal must be made in the Employment Tribunal within three months less one day of the date that your resigned from your employment.

More information on constructive dismissal can be found on the following page: Constructive dismissal

A claim for failing to protect your health and safety

If your employer has failed to take reasonably practicable steps to prevent any bullying and harassment and you have, as a consequence, suffered some form of harm, then you may able to bring a claim against your employer under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

A claim under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 must be made in the civil courts, not the Employment Tribunal.

You should obtain specialist legal advice if you wish to pursue this type of claim against your employer.

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Making a claim for bullying and harassment

If you want to make a claim against your employer or your work colleagues because of bullying and harassment that you have suffered at work then you should take legal advice from a specialist employment law solicitor.

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Compensation for bullying and harassment claims

Depending on what type of claim you make and the circumstances of your claim, you may be able to claim the following types of damages if you are successful in any of your claims:

  • Loss of earnings
  • Injury to feelings (if you make a claim under the PHA 1997 or the Equality Act 2010)
  • General damages (if you make a claim for negligence or under the HSAW etc 1974)

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Call Redmans today to discuss your employment law matter

Call Redmans on 020 3397 3603 or email us at enquiries@redmans.co.uk to discuss your employment law matter.

Alternatively, you can call Chris Hadrill, the partner responsible for the employment department, on 020 3397 3601 or email him at chadrill@redmans.co.uk.

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Disability discrimination

Our guide explains that you can't be discriminated against because you are disabled. It covers rights your right to have reasonable adjustments made to the workplace to compensate your disability, your right not to be treated less favourably because you are disabled, and your right not to be subjected to a detriment as a consequence of your disability. It also includes a guide to what action you can potentially take if you believe that you are being discriminated against because you are disabled.

Basic rights at work

Rights at work includes the right to time off work, your contract of employment, your rights regarding health and safety, regarding trade unions, discrimination, harassment, bullying, harassment, victimization, and whistleblowing
Our guide explains that you can't be discriminated against because you are pregnant or have taken or are taking maternity. It covers rights that women who are pregnant or are on maternity leave have, including the right to go off sick with a pregnancy-related illness, your right to pay and other terms and conditions, and other rights. It also includes a guide to what action you can potentially take if you believe that you are being discriminated against because you are pregnant or on maternity leave.

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