Bullying and harassment in the workplace: introduction
Bullying and harassment are common problems affecting many members at work. But both bullying and harassment are unacceptable, and the law makes it clear that all employees have the right to work in a safe environment.
Your employer is responsible for creating and maintaining a safe workplace, free from bullying, intimidation and harassment. Employees are protected by a combination of employers’ policies and legislation.
If you or someone you know is affected by bullying and harassment, contact your UNISON representative for advice.
What is bullying?
- offensive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour;
- abuse of authority which violates the dignity of an individual or a group of people;
- creating a hostile environment against an individual;
- the undermining, humiliation or injury of an individual.
The bullying does not need to relate to a protected characteristic (discussed below) but unless it does, or is of a sexual nature, it is not prohibited by the Equality Act 2010 (or, in Northern Ireland, under various pieces of equality legislation addressing a protected characteristic).
What is harassment?
Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of people in the workplace or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
To be protected under the Equality Act (or in Northern Ireland under various pieces of equality legislation addressing a protected characteristic), it must be related to gender reassignment, disability, age, sex (or be of a sexual nature), sexual orientation, race, religion or belief (and in Northern Ireland political opinion) or nationality. It may be an isolated incident or come up again and again.
Harassment includes bullying if it relates to one of the protected characteristics listed above.
A key factor in determining whether harassment has occurred is whether the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.
A few examples of bullying/harassment could include:
- making offensive or intimidating comments;
- withholding information so the job cannot be done properly;
- unreasonable or impossible deadlines or workloads;
- overbearing supervision or unjust criticism;
- blocking opportunities or making threats about job security.
What can you do about bullying and harassment?
There are a few simple steps you can take if you are affected by bullying at work:
- keep a written record or diary of all bullying incidents, including past incidents – no matter how small they appear;
- speak to the bully or harasser (if you can): they may not have realised how distressing their actions are to you – if you are unable to do this, ask your safety rep, steward or a colleague to raise it on your behalf;
- speak to your employer – your safety rep, steward, colleague or UNISON rep may be able to advise you on the best way of doing so and accompany you to any meetings with your employer;
- speak to your UNISON rep;
- contact an occupational health service or employee assistance programme;
- become a UNISON safety rep to help reduce bullying and harassment in your workplace.
What can UNISON do about bullying and harassment?
UNISON works at many levels to tackle bullying and harassment in the workplace:
- nationally – UNISON campaigns against bullying and harassment;
- locally – UNISON safety reps and stewards are trained to help you find a solution to bullying and harassment issues;
- your UNISON rep may investigate whether your case is a one-off incident, or part of a wider problem;
- your UNISON rep may also survey members and workers and may negotiate with your employer to create or revise policies.
Next steps for UNISON reps
Ask your employer to carry out a risk assessment – bullying and harassment are both risks to the physical and psychological wellbeing of workers, so a risk assessment can be an appropriate way to document the potential threat posed by bullying at work.
Negotiate a policy on bullying – a joint policy on bullying should form the basis of attempts to manage bullying at work, and send a clear signal that bullying is not acceptable.
The policy should outline what constitutes bullying behaviour, as well as procedures for dealing with complaints.
Join the campaign – UNISON is actively campaigning against bullying and harassment at work.
- You are entitled to work in a safe environment, free from bullying and harassment.
- You should speak to your UNISON rep if you are affected by bullying and harassment at work.
- UNISON campaigns against bullying and harassment in the workplace, and you can help us spread the word.
Bullying and harassment
How can a risk assessment help prevent bullying?
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the nature and scale of workplace risks to health and safety, including mental health.
They then need to take preventive mesure which are effectively planned, organised, controlled, monitored and reviewed.
So a risk assessment can commit employers to taking action against bullying and harassment in the workplace.
Is bullying against the law?
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 require employers to provide a safe and healthy working environment, including protection from bullying and harassment at work.
If the bullying is linked to gender reassignment, disability, age, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion or belief, nationality or is of a sexual nature then protection is provided under the Equality Act 2010 (or in Northern Ireland under various pieces of equality legislation addressing a protected characteristic including political opinion).
If it is not covered by the Equality Act 2010 (or Northern Ireland legislation covering protected characteristics), it may still be possible to bring a claim in the county court , or the Sheriff Court in Scotland, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (or the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997).
Under this legislation employers can be liable for harassment by their employees.
The harassment must amount to a “course of conduct” and must be serious enough that it would justify sanction under the criminal law.
It can be difficult to determine when conduct is serious enough: you should contact your UNISON rep for more information if you have a concern.
If personal injury arises, it may also be possible to bring a claim in negligence in the county court. Again your should contact your UNISON rep for more information if you have a concern.
What can I do to prevent bullying and harassment?
Keep a record of all incidents of bullying and harassment – even if they are minor or feel insignificant.
If your colleagues witness the abuse, they may be willing to act as witnesses which may help your case.
Who can help me if I am being bullied or harassed at work?
Your UNISON rep can help you plan a response if you have been affected by bullying or harassment. Find out how to contect your rep.
They can also help you discuss the problem with your employers’ representatives.