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Harassment & bullying
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What is bullying? 

There is no actual legal definition of what constitutes bullying in the workplace. However, it is generally accepted to be: offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel uncomfortable, frightened, vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. Power does not always mean being in a position of authority but can include both personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation. 

Bullying can take the form of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct, and may include, for example physical or psychological threats, overbearing and intimidating levels of supervision, and/or inappropriate derogatory remarks about someone's performance. 

Employers have an implied duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of their employees, and to take reasonable steps to provide a safe workplace and a safe system of work. A failure to respond to bullying behaviour if witnessed, or an employee’s complaint of bullying, in a timely manner, or to provide a proper form of redress, may constitute a breach of the implied duty of trust and confidence. 

All employers must have a written grievance procedure, which complies with certain minimum standards (see the ACAS Code). 

 

What is harassment? 

Harassment is a type of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. To amount to ‘harassment’, the conduct must have the purpose or effect of violating your dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you, and must be related to one of the relevant ‘protected characteristics’ (age, sex, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation).

It also includes treating someone less favourably because they have submitted or refused to submit to such behaviour in the past. 

A one-off incident can amount to harassment and may include, for example:

  • unwanted physical conduct or "horseplay", including touching, pinching, pushing and grabbing;
  • unwelcome sexual advances or suggestive behaviour ;
  • offensive e-mails, text messages or comments made on social media;
  • mocking, mimicking or belittling someone.

A person may be being harassed even though they are not the intended target, e.g.  racist jokes being made about a different ethnic group can still create an offensive environment for the individuals that heard them.  

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Meet your experts
Brendan Donohue Brendan joined Which? Legal in 2018 and is a member of the Employment Lawyers Association. Brendan has over 15 years of experience advising on all aspects of employment law. See profile
Duncan Snook Duncan joined Which? Legal as an employment law specialist in May 2018. He has over 10 years of experience as an employment solicitor in private practice. See profile