Bullying & Harassment


Bullying and harassment at work is not acceptable but sometimes it can build up slowly and subtly over a period of time. This makes it harder to identify for a victim and easier for a bully to get away with it. Bullying and harassment can have a serious affect on a worker's performance and mental health.

There is no legal definition of workplace bullying. However, ACAS defines workplace bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied”

Harassment, in general terms is "unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident."

Examples of Workplace Bullying

Bullying at work is an abuse of power or position. It is offensive discrimination through persistent, vindictive, cruel or humiliating attempts to undermine, criticise, condemn, hurt or humiliate either an individual or a group of employees. Examples of bullying and harassing behaviour include:

  • Constantly criticising a competent worker

  • Undermining the position, status, worth, value or potential of workers

  • Misusing power or position

  • Making unfounded comments/threats about job security

  • Making unwelcome sexual advances, invading personal space, touching, kissing

  • Exclusion/victimisation – separating an individual from colleagues, excluding them from work or ignoring them

  • Copying in emails criticising someone to colleagues who are not involved

  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone, especially in front of others

  • Spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone on email or social media

  • Coercing a worker into leaving early, constructive dismissal, voluntary redundancy, early or ill health retirement, etc.

  • Twisting, distorting or misrepresenting a worker’s words

  • Overloading workers with tasks

  • Moving the goalposts – setting objectives which subtly change and are not achievable.

Examples of Workplace Harassment

Sexual Harassment

This type of harassment is unwanted sexual behaviour or conduct based on sex/sexual orientation/gender affecting your dignity at work. Examples include:

  • Unwanted physical contact (touching, patting, pinching, deliberately brushing against someone’s body, assault and coercing someone into sexual intimacy)

  • Making unwelcome verbal sexual advances, propositioning or pressurising/blackmailing someone for sexual activity, continued suggestions for socialising outside work (despite the person making clear this is unwelcome), offensive flirtation, suggestive remarks, innuendo or lewd comments, disclosure of another individual’s sexual orientation against their wishes

  • Displaying pornographic or sexually suggestive pictures, objects or written materials, including on email

  • Leering, whistling or making sexually suggestive gestures

  • Behaviour which denigrates, ridicules, is intimidating or physically abusive because of an employee’s gender or sexual orientation, such as insults or offensive comments about appearance/dress.

Racial Harassment

This type of harassment is racially motivated behaviour directed at people because of race, colour, ethnic origin, cultural differences, accent, religion and/or nationality. Examples include:

  • Derogatory name calling, malicious comments, jokes, hostile attitudes, ‘banter’ which either encourages or is based on stereotypes

  • Assault, damage of personal property

  • Graffiti, displays of racial insignia or material, denial of opportunities, exclusion from social activities

  • Abuse or insults via email, mobile phones, social media.

Harassment of individuals with a disability

This type of harassment is unwanted actions or behaviour directed at people because of their disability. This includes mental and physical disabilities. Examples include:

  • Abuse or intimidation, mimicking the disability

  • Speaking to others instead of the person with the disability, asking intimate questions about their impairment

  • Unreasonably questioning the person’s work capacity and/or ability by making inappropriate demands, requirements, jokes

  • Uninvited touching, exclusion from social events, making assumptions about people with a disability (e.g. that they don’t have a social/sexual/private life), making assumptions about a person’s impairment and sickness record.

Harassment based on religion or philosophy

Unwanted behaviour or actions because of someone’s religion or philosophical belief.

  • Abuse or intimidation, assault, damage of property

  • Derogatory name calling, malicious comments, jokes, hostile attitudes, banter which encourages stereotypes

  • Graffiti, displays of offensive material, denial of opportunities, exclusion.

Harassment based on age

This can affect both younger and older workers. Examples include:

  • Intimidation

  • Derogatory remarks or jokes about age, banter which encourages stereotypes about age, making assumptions about lack of ability based on age.

Effects on an Individual

You might start to feel anxious and humiliated at your place of work. Stress and low self-confidence can make you feel uncomfortable and insecure at work, leading to illness, absence and even resignation. Professional performance and relationships are usually affected. If you are being bullied and/or harassed, you might experience:

  • Poor concentration and forgetfulness

  • Problems managing workload

  • Mood swings

  • Reclusive behaviour with colleagues

  • Continual anxiety and stress

  • Frequent illnesses such as viral infections

  • Headaches/migraines X tiredness, exhaustion, constant fatigue, sleeplessness, waking early

  • Irritable bowel syndrome

Effects of on an organisation

The negative effects of workplace bullying are wide reaching and costly,

Financial impact:

  • Loss of productivity and disruptions to day-to-day operations (unhappy staff talking to colleagues about their bad experiences)

  • Higher rates of staff turnover and, therefore, increased recruitment/training costs

  • In severe cases, employment tribunals and legal fees

Cultural impact:

  • A workplace with a bullying problem creates a toxic internal organisational culture

  • A poor company reputation, it’s poison from the inside out

Common Types of Workplace Bully

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Workplace bullying specialists, have identified 4 different bully types that are commonly found in the workplace. An experienced bully might crossover each of the types below depending on the person's strengths and weaknesses that they want to bully and control:

1. The screaming mimi

The Screaming Mimi is usually the least common of the workplace bullies but this type of bully is still the most recognisable. This bully is outwardly rude and likes to shout at people. Their mission is to control the atmosphere of the workplace.

Actions typical of this bully:

  • Loud and abusive in public

  • Controls by fear

  • Overly dominant

  • Intimidating

  • Obnoxious

2. The constant critic

The constant critic bully can be harder to identify in the workplace. There is a blurred line between giving necessary, constructive feedback and being pedantic and overly critical. This line can be especially hard to differentiate in the case of a bully who is also a manager – especially when it comes to performance appraisal systems. This type of bully uses feedback and appraisal reviews to taunt rather than develop. Their mission is to control a person’s identity and confidence.

Actions typical of this bully:

  • Highly critical

  • Dismantle victims’ confidence

  • Looks for flaws in everything

  • Nit-picking

3. The two headed snake

The two-headed snake is one of the hardest types of bullies to detect as you do not realise what they are until they have already done damage. This bully is two-faced and may initially seem to be an ally. This bully may be difficult to pick out, but a good tip is to watch out for huggers. An early hugger may be trying to get you onside so you will divulge information about yourself that they can use against you in the future. Their mission is to control a person’s reputation.

Actions typical of this bully:

  • Pretends to be like a friend but is trying to destroy your reputation

  • Takes credit for your work

  • Backstabbing

  • Inconsistent and unpredictable responses and actions

4. The gate keeper

Unlike the other types of bullies, the gate keeper uses inactions to bully. and they do not have to be in management. While other types of bullies are actively doing something to their victims and abuse their authority, the gate keeper doesn’t ‘do’ anything—it’s what they don’t do that is the problem. This bully’s key weapons are accessible resources and information – all of which they either withhold from people or use as leverage against others. Their mission is to control deadlines and create stress for their targeted victims.

Actions typical of this bully:

  • Malicious and usually striking at a great times of vulnerability, such as bereavement, divorce etc

  • Dismissive

  • Creates unrealistic deadlines

  • Exerts power over others

  • Deliberately excludes others from social interactions

Employer's Responsibilities

Employers and managers have a duty of care for their employees. If mutual trust and confidence is broken through bullying and harassment, employees can resign and claim ‘constructive dismissal’ on the grounds of breach of contract.

A breach of contract may also include the failure to protect an employee’s health and safety at work. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees.

The ACAS leaflet 'A guide for Employers and Managers - Bullying and Harassment' outlines an employer's responsibilities and best practices.

Things you can do if bullied or harassed

  • Read your employer's policies on bullying and harassment

  • Discuss with your trade union or staff representative

  • Seek advice from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) (you can read the ACAS Bullying and Harassment leaflet for Employees for further guidance)

  • Speak to colleagues to see if they share the same concerns, whether anyone has seen what is happening to you and whether anyone else has the same problem

  • Consider whether or not you are comfortable raising your issues with the person you feel is bullying you, they may not realise what effect they are having on you, visit our 'Raising Issues with your Employer' page for more help

  • If you are reluctant to make a complaint, see someone you feel comfortable with to discuss the issue

  • Record all incidents – dates, times, witnesses, your feelings. Keep copies of anything you consider relevant

  • If you decide to make a formal complaint, follow your organisation’s procedures, which should give you information about who to complain to and how your complaint will be dealt with

  • If you have trade union representation or other adviser, ask them to help you prepare your grievance as this can help its resolution

  • Talking to your GP might help, particularly if you think the bullying or harassment is affecting your health

  • Check whether your situation might also be harassment under the Equality Act 2010, visit our 'What the law says' page for more information

  • Take a look at our 'Improving Relations in the Workplace' page