What counts as workplace bullying?

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Woman is excluded from groupImage source, Getty Images

Employers must try to protect staff from bullying in the workplace, but sometimes it is hard to know what to do about the problem.

Dominic Raab has resigned as Deputy Prime Minister after a report investigating bullying allegations against him was handed to the prime minister.

But how do you know you're being bullied at work, and what can you do about it?

What is bullying in the workplace?

The UK government defines it as "behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended".

Dispute resolution service Acas says that bullying behaviour can be "malicious or insulting", or an abuse of power that "undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone".

It can be regular or a one-off, happen in person or online, it can be at work or at a work-related event such as a party, and it may not be obvious.

Bullying can range from being very direct, such as verbal or physical abuse, to being subtle, such as excluding people and isolating them.

Bullying could include:

  • a colleague spreading rumours, or putting you down in meetings
  • your boss giving you more work than everyone else
  • someone putting humiliating comments on social media
  • a manager offering career development opportunities or training to others that you are denied
  • a boss not giving you chances to show your skills or ignoring you

What does the law say?

There is no legal definition of bullying, and human resources professional body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says there is no single piece of legislation that covers it.

But there are legal protections. Employers have a duty of care to keep you safe at work, and you may be able to claim for breach of employment contract if this doesn't happen.

Employment lawyer Jessica Rowson at Oakwood Solicitors, who specialises in stress at work, says courts look at intention and the effect of behaviour on an individual.

The lack of a legal definition of bullying can cause confusion for both employees and employers, Ms Rowson adds.

Who can be bullied?

While the majority of bullying is abuse of power by bosses, it can also be done by peers or other colleagues.

People lower down in the pecking order can bully upwards by showing continued disrespect, refusing to complete tasks, spreading rumours, or doing things to try to make it look as though you are bad at your job.

Even business owners can be bullied, although so-called "upward bullying" is relatively rare.

Bullying can extend to contractors working on site or even job applicants.

However, in practice, most bullying disputes involve someone being bullied by their line manager, according to Michelle Last, employment partner at Keystone Law.

How widespread is bullying?

Unfortunately workplace bullying is fairly common, with more than one in 10 people suffering, according to the CIPD's latest figures.

It found that 15% of employees said they were bullied at some point between 2016 and 2019.

Women are significantly more likely than men to say they've been bullied.

Image source, Getty Images

What can employees do if they are bullied?

The CIPD says: "Speak up! It's only by challenging unfair treatment that it can be properly dealt with."

One of the first steps is to discuss the problem with a senior manager or HR.

Employment lawyer Anne Pritam at Stephenson Harwood says "sometimes just getting the issue into the open can make a bully back off".

"Often people who are perceived as bullies have no idea that they are seen that way, and an informal word from HR or a more senior manager might show an employee that their actions are having unintended consequences," she says.

It's also a good idea to keep a log of bullying incidents with dates and times, noting how they make you feel, Acas says.

If dealing with the problem informally doesn't work, the next step is to raise a grievance, which is a way of making a formal complaint.

It's also important to look after your mental health.

Jessica Rowson says: "If your mental health is suffering because of the bullying, do try and recognise that this is an important issue to address, and seek out medical support from your GP, who is there to help."

How should an employer handle a bullying complaint?

People may not report bullying because they think it could harm their careers.

So organisations must have clear procedures for dealing with bullying, and act fairly and quickly to resolve complaints, the CIPD says.

Large employers may have organised systems with employee helplines and teams that handle bullying complaints, says Anne Pritam.

For smaller companies, complaints must be taken seriously and investigated, she says.

If the complaint turns out to be well-founded, the problem needs to addressed - usually through training, coaching or disciplinary sanctions.

Ms Pritam says bullying is "a high-risk issue" and can lead employees who have been consistently poorly treated to resign and sue for unfair constructive dismissal or harassment.

Vishala Sri-Pathma contributed to this article.