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Bullying and harassment in the workplace

Last updated: 5 May 2022

The terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ are often used interchangeably to describe intimidating or offensive behaviour in the workplace.

What is bullying in the workplace?

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).

Although experiences differ between individuals, some common bullying behaviours 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.

What is harassment in the workplace?

Harassment is defined by the Equality Act 2010 as any unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or hostile, which makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated or humiliated. It is unlawful if the behaviour is related 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.

What to do about bullying and harassment at work

If you are struggling with bullying 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.

You can also follow the steps outlined in our article on what to do if you are having problems at work.

This advice applies in England, Wales and Scotland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details. If you are in Northern Ireland you can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.

If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.

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The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.

We cannot provide advice on employment rights in Northern Ireland as the law is different. You can visit the Labour Relations Agency or call their helpline Workplace Information Service on 03300 555 300.