Bullying and harassment swept under the carpet at work: what employers can do

January 27, 2020


A recent report by the CIPD shows that although 15% of employees have experienced bullying in the past three years, more than half of them (53%) did not report it to their employer, with fear appearing to be the biggest reason for this.

The most common forms of bullying or harassment reported were being undermined or humiliated, receiving persistent unwarranted criticism and unwanted personal remarks from colleagues. According to the survey, 24% of employees think challenging issues such as bullying and harassment are “swept under the carpet” at work.

Harassment is any conduct (which can be physical, verbal or non-verbal) that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an “intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for them. It is a type of discrimination, so must be related to a “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010: these are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage/civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. If an employee has been harassed at work because of their protected characteristic then their employer will be at risk of being liable for a discrimination claim.

There is no “legal” definition of bullying, but it can be generally defined as malicious, intimidating or hurtful behaviour involving a misuse of power. It is behaviour that is unrelated to discrimination, and therefore an employee who is subjected to bullying doesn’t receive protection under Equality Act 2010.  However, if an employee terminates their employment because they have been bullied at work, they may be able to bring a claim for constructive dismissal to an employment tribunal if the employer has not taken action to address concerns previously.

Whilst an employer cannot always control the behaviour of their employees, there is plenty that can be done to minimise the risks that come from bullying and harassment behaviour in the workplace:

  1. Have an anti-bullying and harassment policy in place clearly outlining your organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity at work and the behaviours expected from others.

  2. Train your managers to tackle such conflict at work, including spotting and dealing promptly with inappropriate behaviour that could escalate into bullying or harassment.

  3. Encourage a culture where employees speak up at work, so staff are aware of how and to whom to raise concerns.

  4. Have a clear grievance process in place so you have a consistent and fair procedure for dealing with complaints of bullying or harassment.

  5. Be familiar with your grievance and disciplinary processes to avoid the risk of being accused by an employee that a complaint was not dealt with in line with internal procedures.



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