How Does the Law Protect Me from Workplace Bullying and Harrassment?

Bullying and harassment is an uncomfortably reality of working life, and can take a number of different forms. Bullying can be overt bullying, such as intimidation or insulting behaviour; or it can be a series of smaller incidents which – when taken together – may amount to a campaign of bullying.

Many cases of bullying in the workplace involve the abuse or misuse of power and authority from a superior towards a junior staff member. However, other victims of bullying or harassment are targeted because they are ‘different’, for instance, they may be disabled, gay, shy, or religious.


What is bullying?

Legislation, notably the Equality Act 2010, does not definitively define what bullying is. However, it can be loosely defined as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, and abuse of misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures the recipient – whether emotionally or physically.

Bullying in the workplace can consist of:

  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Remarks about someone’s age, dress, or appearance
  • Offensive language
  • Isolation from groups
  • Failure to keep certain information confidential
  • Continual criticism
  • Shouting and verbal abuse

How does the law protect me from bullying?

When you work for an employer, there is an implied term in your employment contract that your employer will provide you with reasonable support to protect you from bullying and unwanted harassment from colleagues. If you are bullied by a fellow worker, this may amount to a breach of contract by your employer.

If you are bullied, and the bullying is not dealt with internally and you feel you have no choice but to resign, you can bring a claim for constructive dismissal to the Employment Tribunal. However, you must have been employed for at least 2 years. If you haven’t, you may be able to pursue a harassment claim (see below).

If you are bullied by your employer because you have blown the whistle on your employer’s working practices (or similar) you are protected by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. You may also be protected from certain forms of intimidation under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.


What is harassment?

Harassment is almost the same as bullying, but tends to involve – or be focused on – a protected characteristic. So conduct may amount to harassment in law if it is on the grounds of:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality, and/or
  • Any personal characteristic of the individual

Harassment may involve a single incident or a variety of similar incidents. The most important thing you would need to establish in a formal harassment claim is that those actions or comments can be viewed as demeaning or unacceptable to you, and the purpose or effect was to violate your dignity or to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Does the law provide me with any protection?

Anti-discrimination laws in England and Wales protect employees from harassment both during their employment, and when applying for potential employment. The advantage for you if you have to make a claim for distress and anxiety caused by harassment is that you don’t have to resign to bring a claim. A claim (under the Protection from Harassment Act) is made in the civil courts rather than the Employment Tribunal – which means you have longer to bring your claim.

However, the alleged conduct/behaviour must have occurred at least twice, be specifically targeted at you to cause alarm of distress, and be objectively oppressive and unreasonable, and amount to criminal conduct under the Act.

What about victimisation?

Victimisation is similar to harassment and is basically bad treatment towards a worker who has made (or is thought to have made or about to make) a complaint under the Equality Act. However, if that worker makes a false allegation or provides false evidence, they will not be legally protected.

Can bullying in the workplace be eradicated?

Preventing – or at least, dealing with – bullying in the workplace is the joint responsibility of the employer and its employees. Employers should implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policies and procedures detailing various issues and ensure that this is made available to all staff, and ensure adequate staff training.

Employees, for their part, have the responsibility to ensure they behave in ways which support a non-hostile working environment for themselves and their colleagues. All employees should play their part in ensuring that the policy developed by the employer becomes a reality, ensuring they are prepared to challenge any inappropriate behaviour and take action if they observe or have evidence that someone is being bullied or harassed.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.