Health and Safety

Bullying and harassment at work - what is it and how to prevent it

Bullying and harassment remains a persistent problem in UK workplaces, and can have significant consequences for both employer and employee.

Research by CIPD has found that 15% of employees have experienced bullying over the last three years. Also, just over a third (35%) have experienced conflict or a difficult relationship at work.

Bullying and harassment at work can have significant consequences for both employer and employee. For the employee, bullying can lead to work-related stress and ill health. Nearly 18 million working days are lost each year due to stress, anxiety or depression, with 11 million due to work-related stress.

Employers are responsible for creating and maintaining a safe workplace, including one that is free from bullying, intimidation and harassment. Depending on the nature of the harassment, employers may face legal action under the Equality Act 2010.

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Our IOSH Approved physical and verbal abuse, bullying and harassment awareness course aims to provide employees at all levels within an organisation with the essential information they need to understand accepted definitions, signs and symptoms that victims might display and what actions to take.


What is workplace bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment at work covers a wide range of physical, emotional, and verbal behaviours. The behaviour is usually unfair and unwanted, and may offend, upset or intimidate an individual.

Workplace bullying examples include:

  • Spreading rumours about a person
  • Exclusion from social activities/isolation
  • Denying someone training/promotion opportunities
  • Unfair treatment
  • Setting unachievable deadlines
  • Nasty comments
  • Inappropriate or derogatory jokes
  • Persistent unwarranted criticism
  • Shouting
  • Physical bullying (throwing things, nudging them) which can become violent
  • Sexual harassment, including sexual remarks, sexual jokes and sexual advances.

These types of behaviours can take place face-to-face, online, via email or by phone.

Bullying or harassment aimed at 'protected characteristics' is unlawful.

These characteristics include:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Gender reassignment
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religion / belief
  • Maternity and pregnancy
  • Sexual orientation


Who can be affected?

Anyone can be a victim of bullying and harassment at work, although employees in certain roles are at a higher risk. Examples include:

  • Lone workers
  • Phone-based workers
  • Employees meeting with clients
  • Employees dealing with customers or members of the public

Bullying can take place anywhere. It can occur in front of a larger team who aren't aware of it happening, but in many situations it can occur when employees are alone or in a vulnerable situation. Anyone of any gender, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation can be a victim of harassment.

According to research, 52% of women have been subjected to bullying in the workplace, with 71% of disabled women being abused at work.

Who is responsible for workplace bullying?

Employees such as co-workers, managers and supervisors, along with customers and clients, can all bully and harass an employee.

Customers and members of the public may become aggressive, usually verbally, towards employees they think aren't providing the service they should. Some customers may even do this repeatedly to gain extra benefits or rewards such as free products.

Women were more at risk, with 2 in 5 saying they've experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to 1 in 5 men (18%). Employees in certain sectors, such as hospitality, may face a greater degree of sexual harassment from customers. Research shows that 9 out of 10 hospitality workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the workplace, bullying can occur from close workers, in particular team managers or supervisors. Research by CIPD found that 40% of employees who have been bullied or harassed report their manager as responsible. The research suggests that employees in positions of authority may abuse their power and think like they can get away with their behaviour.

The same study also shows that 29% of people were bullied by a close colleague.


Recognising bullying and harassment at work

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can be difficult to spot, especially as it is not always obvious that a person is being targeted in this way. An individual may be too frightened to report an incident through the organisation's grievance procedure or may consider it part of workplace culture. An employer should however be aware of some of the possible signs of bullying or harassment, including:

  • Increased absenteeism – if more frequent or for longer periods than usual, may signify an employee being bullied or uncomfortable at work.
  • High employee turnover – especially if in a specific team or among employees working for a particular manager.
  • Symptoms of stress – may include fatigue, anxiety, depression, aches, pains, numbness and panic attacks.
  • Low-self esteem or isolated workers – if an employee is often on their own while others are socialising, they may be purposely excluded by their co-workers or deliberately isolating themselves due to bullying and unwelcomed behaviour from others.
  • Rumours or gossip.
  • Reluctance to interact with the team – if an employee seems withdrawn from team meetings and activities, they may be afraid of being more of a target.

How to deal with workplace bullying

Employers have a duty of care for all their workers, including keeping them safe from bullying and harassment.

If an employer fails to carry out this duty, then an employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal on the grounds of breach of contract. Employees who are assaulted, threatened or abused at work may also seek damages against an employer or individuals and in some cases, a criminal prosecution may be sought.

One of the first steps to ensuring buying and harassment has no place in the workplace is to set clear expectations of employee behaviour. Employees should be made aware of the risks of bullying or harassment and understand the procedures for reporting incidents. You should also have a clear management plan if issues arise.

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There are several actions an organisation can take to tackle bullying and harassment in the workplace.

  • Training – workplace bullying awareness training such as the IOSH Approved Praxis42's e-learning course can help employees recognise signs of bullying and what to do if they witness or experience it. Allowing each employee to have the same training will ensure a consistent level of knowledge.
  • Grievance procedure – encourage employees who experience bullying or harassment in the workplace to report it. Employers must take all complaints seriously and conduct a formal grievance procedure to investigate and resolve the problem.
  • Implement disciplinary action – employers should ensure adequate consequences for the bully, especially after the initial complaint isn't resolved or if the behaviour is repeated.
  • Offer counselling – give employees access to counselling and support to deal with the stress of bullying and harassment. The counselling should be completely confidential and with trained counsellors.
  • Consult with employees – Ensure line managers and supervisors are trained to spot signs of bullying and harassment and don’t adopt inappropriate behaviours which lead to bullying and harassment. Ensure all managers and employees are aware of anti-bullying policies and where and how to ask for help or raise concerns.

Our IOSH Approved physical and verbal abuse, bullying and harassment e-learning course helps employees understand what isn't acceptable workplace behaviour and what to do if they believe they are a victim of bullying or harassment at work.


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