Apr 04

Harassment and Bullying at Work

Shockingly, statistics show that bullying and harassment at work is a common problem with approximately 25% of the UK population saying they have experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace at some point in their lives. But what is harassment and bullying in a work context and what are your responsibilities in this area as an employer?

What is harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as occurring when a person engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic that has the purpose or effect of violating the victim’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, offensive or humiliating environment for them.

What is bullying?

ACAS defines bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate, or injure the recipient. Unlike harassment, bullying does not need to be connected to a protected characteristic.

In practice the terms harassment and bullying are often used to describe the same types of behaviour. In the workplace, harassment and bullying can take many forms across a wide spectrum of behaviours and can range from more subtle forms of bullying such as leaving an individual out of meetings, micromanagement, or persistent criticism through to more overt forms of bullying and harassment such as verbal abuse or even physical violence. Workplace harassment or bullying can be a singular or repetitive act and it can take place in both an online as well as in a face-to-face setting. Some examples of workplace bullying or harassment might include:

  • Unfair treatment
  • Picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • Personal insults
  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Making comments of a sexual nature
  • Making derogatory comments about a person’s appearance
  • Shouting
  • Aggressive behaviour


The term banter is often used to describe comments made in the workplace that are fun, lighthearted, innocent and most importantly consensual. However, bullying and harassment can often be disguised as harmless banter. The problem with office banter is that its very subjective and what may seem like a lighthearted or humorous remark to one person, can be considered deeply offensive or even intimidating to another.

Bullying in itself is not illegal under the Equality Act but harassment, when related to a protected characteristic (such as age, race, religion, disability etc) is. Although not recognised under the Equality Act, all employers have a legal duty to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their employees under the Health and Safety at Work Act, and this would include protection from bullying. Employers can also be held vicariously liable for the bullying or harassing acts committed by their employees, if they cannot show that they took adequate steps to prevent the bullying from occurring. To minimize the risks around vicarious liability, it’s important to have a plan in place to protect your business.


A good starting point is to have a robust policy on bullying and harassment in place as well as equality and diversity. A strong policy in this area is a great tool for setting expectations around behaviour and preventing issues of this nature before they start.  The policy should include a definition of what harassment and bullying are and what constitutes this type of behaviour in your workplace. It should also detail the process employees need to follow if they wish to make a complaint and the how anyone found to be in breach of the policy will be dealt with.


Conduct or equality and diversity training can also be a useful tool to prevent issues of this nature manifesting in your business. Training, which can be done via webinars, seminars, or e-learning, will provide practical guidance around expected standards of behaviour. It can also be an important part of educating your workforce around the line between harmless banter and inappropriate or offensive behaviour.

Having a robust policy and training on the subject of bullying and harassment will not fully protect your organisation from receiving a complaint in this area. However, evidence of this type of activity will help to mitigate some of the issues around vicarious liability on the part of the employer.

Dealing with complaints

If you do experience a complaint relating to bullying or harassment, it’s crucial that the complaint is taken seriously. If informal action is unsuccessful and the claim escalates to a full grievance, it’s important to follow your grievance policy and ensure that a full and impartial investigation is conducted and disciplinary action against the perpetrator is taken where necessary.

Any incident of workplace bullying or harassment can have negative consequences for the victim and may be extremely damaging to their mental health and wellbeing. However, it can also have incredibly harmful consequences for the organisation as well, creating a toxic culture with low morale and high levels of absenteeism and attrition.

If you need help combating issues of this nature or want to have appropriate steps in place to prevent such situations occurring in the first place, HR Overload can help. Get in touch via and see how we can assist.

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