The terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ are often used interchangeably to describe intimidating or offensive behaviour in the workplace.
Harassment has a legal definition under the Equality Act 2010 and is any unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or hostile, which makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated or humiliated. The test for harassment is whether the behaviour made you experience any of these feelings, and whether it is reasonable for you to feel that way.
Bullying is generally any pattern of behaviour which has the aim of demeaning, insulting or otherwise offending you. Unlike harassment, there is no legal definition for bullying (although a lot of bullying behaviour will come under the umbrella of harassment).
- What is bullying in the workplace?
- What is harassment in the workplace?
- How to deal with bullying and harassment at work
- What to do if you are being bullied or harassed at work
Although experiences differ between individuals, some common bullying behaviours to watch out for are:
- Someone at work making repeated negative comments about your appearance/lifestyle/culture
- Regular inappropriate teasing, or finding yourself the recipient of hurtful jokes or rumours
- Someone from work sharing inappropriate or embarrassing photos/videos of you via email or social media
- Your personal property or work equipment being interfered with unnecessarily
- Someone at work repeatedly reminding you of past errors or mistakes
- Finding yourself being repeatedly ignored or isolated from others in the workplace
If you are being bullied, your situation might also constitute harassment.
Harassment (any unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or hostile, which makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated or humiliated) is unlawful if it is meant to, or has the effect of:
- Violating your dignity; or
- Creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment;
AND if that behaviour is because of or connected to what are known as ‘protected characteristics’, i.e. race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or gender reassignment.
Harassment must be ‘unwanted’ behaviour. You don’t need to have previously objected to something for it to be unwanted; a one-off incident can amount to harassment. The person harassing you does not need to be aware that their behaviour is unwanted. It can still be harassment even if no-one actually meant to offend you.
You can also complain about harassment even if the unwanted behaviour is not directed at you; it is enough for the behaviour to create an environment that you find offensive.
You don’t need to relate to one of the protected characteristics above to be harassed. For example, if a colleague harasses you for being gay even though you are not, this can still constitute harassment. Another example is if a colleague makes unwanted jokes towards you because they think you have a disability (even though this is not the case) or because someone else, like a family member, has a disability – under these circumstances you may still have a claim for harassment.
If you are struggling with bullying and/or harassment in the workplace, you should seek help. Speaking to a trusted friend or colleague can be a first step. You should also speak to your manager to explain how you are feeling and what types of behaviour have been going on. Your manager should help you address your concerns.
If you feel you are able to, you can also speak to the person who is bullying or harassing you. Sometimes behaviours are left unchecked because someone doesn’t understand the harm they are causing. If you are able to explain to the person(s) involved how their behaviour makes you feel, this may be a simple solution to the problem. Try to remain as rational and professional as possible and take steps to find a positive resolution with those involved.
If you feel like you can’t talk to your colleagues or manager about the behaviour, speak to someone else – this could be someone in your human resources department, a trade union representative if you have one, or your GP if you feel that you would benefit from mental health support.
If a colleague is harassing you, they and your employer are both responsible. You might consider taking action against your employer (known as vicarious liability) rather than the specific employee, so that you can deal with a member of your employer’s HR team or a lawyer rather than the colleague who has been harassing you (which could be more distressing).
Even when harassment comes from third-parties in the workplace, such as customers or clients, your employer may be liable for their actions in response to the harassing behaviour towards you, or for their failure to challenge the behaviour, if your employer’s action or inaction was because of one of the protected characteristics mentioned previously.
As there is no legal definition, it is not possible to make a claim for bullying on it own in the workplace. You may be able to make a claim for harassment. Note that for a harassment claim to be successful, it must be reasonable for you to have felt this way. For more information on bringing a claim please see our page on Discrimination, Harassment and Victimisation.
Your employer may have its own procedures on how to deal with issues of workplace bullying and harassment. You should check your employer’s policy, if they have one. Before making a harassment claim, your options for resolving the situation include:
- Making an informal complaint by talking to or writing to your employer
- Making a formal complaint to your employer – ‘raising a grievance’
- Using mediation (where a trained mediator will try to help you and your employer reach an agreement about how best to deal with your situation)
If you feel that these options are not suitable or you are not satisfied with your employer’s handling of the situation, you can seek advice on your options.