A recent survey found that 41% of participants said they had been bullied in their workplace. If you feel bullied in your workplace, or have an employee who claims they are being bullied, we can work with you to help identify and address issues of bullying.


What does bullying mean?

There is no legal definition of bullying but it can take many forms. Bullying in the workplace typically involves exclusion from social activities or from business discussions and decisions, colleagues colluding and ganging up against individuals, being set unrealistic targets or being given an excessive workload and being humiliated in front of others.


Why do employees not report bullying?

Victims of bullying often suffer in silence and feel they cannot report incidents for fear of retribution or harm to their careers. Victims may even worry that if they speak out they will be viewed as not resilient enough for the workplace.


Employers have a duty of care

In nearly every instance of bullying allegations, people also report suffering from health worries such as stress and depression. Employers have a duty of care to look after the health and safety of their employees and this includes any mental health issues arising out of the conduct of their employees.


What should employers be doing?

Having the correct policies and procedures in place is not enough. Ignoring bullying does not make it go away and employers that do not address allegations of bullying head on can face repercussions.

If you are an employer facing a complaint of bullying or discrimination, you should seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity. An early resolution of such complaints is vital and could save you a great deal of time and expense.


Employers may be held liable

Employers can be held liable for the conduct of their workers even if they are blameless and have the correct policies and procedures in place. This is known as vicarious liability. The courts can assign responsibility to an employer for the actions of its employees even when they can show the employees have acted outside of their contracted duties. For example, in a recent case a supermarket was held to be liable for the actions of an employee who carried out a sustained assault on a customer.


Harassment  and discrimination claims

The law can protect individuals and give them recourse through discrimination claims for a type of bullying known as harassment. An employee can bring a discrimination claim when their workplace is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive. The conduct must be unwanted and must also violate the dignity of the employee.

To bring a claim, the bullying or harassment must be committed with a demonstrable connection to one of the following protected characteristics:

  • age;
  • disability;
  • gender reassignment;
  • race;
  • religion or belief;
  • sex; or
  • sexual orientation.

The law also provides protection for an individual who is a witness to discriminatory harassment and brings a complaint on behalf of their colleague who was subject to bullying or harassment. In the event a witness, or a complainant, who complains about discrimination and who then also attracts adverse treatment may also be able to bring a claim for victimisation. It is notable that one cannot bring a harassment claim where the treatment is because someone is pregnant or has given birth.


What can you do if you are being bullied?

If you don’t feel able to tell the person affecting you to stop the offending conduct, you should speak to a manager. Many employers have anti-bullying and speaking out policies, helplines and grievance procedures. You should use these mechanisms to report bullies and stop the conduct. If for any reason you cannot do this, then you should contact a reputable employment lawyer to seek advice. It is clearly important to get the most relevant and accurate advice and it is therefore advisable to pursue advice from a specialist in employment law as soon as possible.

There are also various independent helplines and organisations outside of the workplace who you can contact.

Whilst there is no specific claim for bullying in the Employment Tribunal, remember that you are not alone and there is a lot you can do about bullying and harassment in the workplace. Discrimination is unlawful and there are significant claims that can be brought in an Employment Tribunal. It is important to choose your lawyer carefully, preferably one that has experience of discrimination claims who can assist you with the right tactics from the outset.

Whether you are an employer or an employee the workplace does not have to be a place of conflict, and where there are problems these can be resolved fairly easily as long as the parties are genuinely willing to  work towards a resolution. Where a person who is accused of bullying denies the accusation, then an employer will need to investigate matters fully and if necessary follow a fair disciplinary procedure.

If you would like to know more or hear the Head of our Employment team talk about harassment in the workplace, please watch his video here.

There are also a variety of other videos on our YouTube channel which might be useful in guiding you through employment law and HR issues.

Rebekah Officer is a trainee in the employment team in Exeter and can be contacted on 01392 210700 or email solicitors@stephens-scown.co.uk