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Bullying and Harassment in the workplace

05 Jul 2010

The recession has seen a big increase of complaints of bullying and harassment at work.

Bullying and Harassment – what is the difference?

These terms are used on an interchangeable basis. From a legal perspective they are slightly different.

This is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, often an abuse of power, intended to undermine and humiliate the victim.

Bullying can be:-

  1. Verbal, physical, and/or psychological, social isolation.
  2. For example, social isolation by handing out the ‘silent treatment’.
  3. Committed by a manager over a direct report or peer-to-peer.

This is unwanted conduct which affects the dignity of men and women in the workplace.

It will be related to race, age, sex, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any other personal characteristic of the individual.

Bullying and Harassment can occur: –

  1. Over a period of time or with an isolated incident.
  2. Face-to-face, in writing, over the phone or by fax or email.
  3. Obviously or discreetly.

Key point
Allegations of bullying and/or harassment hinge on whether the recipient views the actions or comments in question as demeaning or unacceptable – this is a subjective test.

In the workplace one should always think first how actions or comments will be received and interpreted by the individual concerned. A person should ask ‘‘does my conduct have the purpose or effect of being inappropriate with this particular individual?” ‘‘Will my conduct be unwelcome?”

Can assertive management be seen as Bullying and/or Harassment?

Managers should not be worried about managing their staff effectively. Assertive management or ‘tough love’ is not bullying and/or harassment as long, as it does not ‘cross the line’ and becomes offensive, intimidates or violates the dignity of the individual.


When may it ‘cross the line’?

  1. Overbearing supervision;
  2. Undermining a competent employee by overloading with work and constantly criticising;
  3. Unfairly overlooking an employee for promotion or denying the employee training opportunities;
  4. Blaming an employee for problems caused by others;
  5. Regularly threatening an employee with ‘the sack’ or disciplinary action.

How to avoid ‘crossing the line’

  1. Criticism should be constructive – highlighting the faults and improvements required;
  2. Appropriate use of language should be adopted to constructively criticise;
  3. Legitimate criticism can ‘cross the line’ and become bullying if it is communicated in a way to undermine or humiliate rather than to improve performance;
  4. The level of criticism should be proportionate to the alleged failing of the employee;
  5. Criticise the work or behaviour rather than the person.

What should you do as an Employer?

  1. Ensure your work place has detailed and up to date bullying and harassment and equal opportunities policies in place.
  2. Reviewgrievances for evidence of trends with particular managers.
  3. Train all staff or at the very least managers, so they are aware of ‘boundaries’ and how to manage staff effectively.

If you suspect bullying and/or harassment is occurring in your business, crack down on it immediately.

For further advice, contact Neil Dwyer on 0191 232 8345 or email neil.dwyer@hay-kilner.co.uk

Please note:
This article is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues. Please contact us to discuss how the contents of the article may affect you.