Bullying - from Hazards at Work book

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Hazards at Work bookThis is an excerpt from the TUC book "Hazards at Work: Organising for safe and healthy workplaces", the best-selling guide to health and safety at work.

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Basic facts | Legal and other standards | Checklist | Safety representatives | Further information

Basic facts about bullying

There is no legal definition, but workplace bullying can be defined as offensive, intimidating, malicious, insulting or humiliating behaviour, abuse or misuse of power or authority which undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures an individual or group of employees and which may cause them to suffer stress-related ill health.

The TUC guide Bullied at Work? lists bullying behaviour as including:

  • competent staff being constantly criticised, having responsibilities removed or being given trivial tasks
  • shouting at staff
  • persistently picking on people in front of others or in private
  • blocking promotion
  • regularly and deliberately ignoring or excluding individuals from work activities
  • setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work or setting impossible deadlines
  • consistently attacking a member of staff in terms of their professional or personal standing
  • regularly making the same person the butt of jokes.

Harassment can be unlawful discrimination when it is unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic – race, sex, disability, age, religion or belief, or sexual orientation – for the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. The Prevention of Harassment Act (1997) covers harassment more generally.

Workplace bullying and harassment are widespread and have increased markedly in the last five years. The 2014 TUC biennial survey of safety reps showed bullying or harassment is still the second most common hazard and a top five concern in their workplace of 46 per cent of safety reps. This is more than double the 20 per cent citing bullying in 2008, and up from 41 per cent in the 2012 survey.

Bullying or harassment features in the top five most common hazards in 10 industrial sectors compared with only two sectors in 2008. It is more common in the public sector, with half of safety reps citing it in the top five, compared with 43 per cent in the private sector, up from 40 and 33 per cent respectively in 2012. Bullying or harassment is a top five concern for 73 per cent of safety reps in banking, insurance and finance; 58 per cent in central government; 56 per cent in education; 50 per cent in other services; 49 per cent in health services; 45 per cent in transport and communication; and 44 per cent in local government.

Repeated surveys by trade unions and academics show workers reporting increasing bullying and harassment as job cuts and increased workloads caused by government budget cuts and other policies take effect across public services, which is increasing insecurity but also silencing workers from reporting as they are fearful of losing their jobs.

Any worker can be bullied, but surveys show that bullying may be conducted against specific groups of people on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and disability. Workers with disabilities, sick workers and those with chronic health problems are particularly at risk, often under the guise of sickness absence management schemes that are unfair and punitive.

Effects of bullying

The cost to the bullied employee is stress and ill health, which can become part of their daily life.

Symptoms can include: anxiety, depression, headaches, nausea, ulcers, sleeplessness, skin rashes, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, tearfulness, loss of self-confidence, anger, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts and suicide.

Employers failing to tackle bullying and harassment can also pay a high price in:

  • lost time – staff are absent due to stress and ill health
  • lost incentive – morale, motivation and commitment are reduced
  • reduced work output and quality of service
  • lost resources – trained and experienced staff leave the organisation
  • financial penalties and loss of reputation if a case goes to employment tribunal or to court

Research has consistently shown that few employers are taking adequate steps to safeguard against bullying and harassment, leaving the causes unchallenged. The TUC and trade union approach is that fairness and respect must be embedded in all managerial roles; good leadership and a positive culture are essential; and manager behaviour modification and more effective control of individual manager behaviour is key to a successful solution to the problems. Every workplace should have a policy making clear that intimidating behaviour towards colleagues will not be tolerated and that those who persist in undermining their fellow members of staff will be dealt with severely.

Legal and other standards for prevention and control

There is no specific law dealing explicitly with bullying at work, but a number of laws do apply to it. These are covered in more detail in other chapters. The HSE Stress Management Standards were published in 2004 to provide employers with detailed guidance on how to assess work-related stress, with a toolkit to help them do it, which covers the prevention of bullying and harassment. See the chapter on stress.

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) advice on bullying

Extracts from the Acas leaflet Bullying and Harassment at Work: a guide for managers and employers outline what all employers should do:

Consider involving staff in the development of a formal but not over-elaborate senior management commitment policy, which should include:

  • acknowledgement that bullying and harassment are the responsibility of the organisation
  • a statement that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated and will be treated as disciplinary offences
  • the prevention steps the organisation will take
  • the responsibilities of managers and supervisors
  • the confidentiality of complaints
  • reference to grievance procedures (formal and informal) and timescales for action
  • reference to disciplinary procedures timescales for action, counselling and support
  • training for managers
  • protection from victimisation
  • how the policy will be implanted, monitored and reviewed.

Employers and senior managers should set a good example. Develop a culture where employees are consulted and problems discussed rather than an authoritarian management style that can tip into bullying and harassment, which the organisation must make clear is unacceptable.

Maintain fair procedures for dealing promptly with complaints, usually through clear grievance and disciplinary procedures that maintain confidentiality and allow both the complainant and the subject of the complaint to be accompanied by a colleague or trade union representative (see S10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999).

Set standards of behaviour – for example by an organisational statement to all staff about the behaviour standards expected and what constitutes bullying and harassment – and supplement this with guides and training sessions. Training should include awareness of the damage done to both individuals and the organisation.

Let employees know that complaints or information relating to them will be dealt with fairly and with sensitivity and confidentiality. Employees may be reluctant to come forward unless reassured that they will not be treated unsympathetically, or might be confronted aggressively by the person about whose behaviour they are complaining.

Cyber-bullying and harassment

The growth of online social media such as Facebook, Twitter and photo messaging and the increasing use of email and mobile phone texting has allowed the 21st century hazard of cyber-bullying to develop. This takes two forms:

  1. The ability of management to bully and harass workers at all times of the day and night: 11 pm emails or constant text messaging meaning workers are never off duty to relax, and also monitoring employees' activities and behaviour on social media sites. Intranet sites can be mediums for in-house bullying and the massive growth in the use of emails as a management technique depersonalises contact between managers and staff and can be a convenient shield for aggressive and insensitive behaviour.
  2. Enabling pupils, parents and the public to harass and bully workers in public forums. For anyone working with the public, this can mean your behaviour or appearance being criticized publicly by someone who is upset by the treatment or service you have provided. For journalists and campaigners, especially women, it can mean being trolled and abused in a personal manner, sometimes with threats of rape and other violence. For teachers and lecturers, it can mean becoming the target of current and past students and their parents in making derogatory comments about their work and personal attributes, spreading malicious and unfounded allegations, and even verbal and physical threats on social media sites.

According to NASUWT, teachers are often devastated and traumatised by the vile nature of the abuse and attacks made on them through social media. Some have lost confidence to teach and have left the profession: others have been so disturbed by the comments that their health has been affected. Great strides had been made by the previous government, working in partnership with NASUWT, other teacher unions and social media providers, in seeking to address this problem. Comprehensive guidance was produced about social media and internet safety to promote good practice for schools on how to protect staff, and pupils, from abuse. One of the coalition government's first acts was to remove the guidance on the grounds that it was unnecessary bureaucracy. Schools need policies that prevent abuse and identify sanctions that will be taken against parents and pupils who abuse staff in this way. Schools should also be supporting staff in securing the removal of the offensive material from social media sites and encouraging the staff concerned to go to the police.

The employer's duty of care to ensure employees are working in a safe environment applies equally to cyber-bullying and harassment whether from inside or outside the workplace. This may require a social media policy for external threats and an agreement about timing of internal emails and texts so as not to disturb or harass workers during the period away from work. Employers can take immediate steps to have material that offends a member of staff removed from websites and social media sites, for material to be 'uncached' and for offensive trolls to be blocked. The police should be contacted in serious cases. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 applies to cyber-bullying and Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1998 makes it an offence to send any indecent, offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person. Under Section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, it is an offence to send a telephone message that is indecent, offensive or threatening. But prevention is better than cure and social media policies can provide guidance about how to keep safe, not to reveal personal details or share photos, or 'friend' or 'follow' anyone unknown.

Cyberbullying is a Workplace Hazard


Download the Bullying checklist (PDF)

What can safety representatives do?

Safety reps should treat bullying and harassment as a hazard and tackle it like any other workplace health and safety issue.

Membership awareness

Use posters and leaflets to raise and discuss the issue with members, and find out what is the incidence and effect of bullying and harassment in your workplace. It adversely affects members' lives and costs employers money, so it must be tackled. Safety reps should report concerns to management in writing; see chapter on dealing with employers and getting things done.

Surveys and inspections

You could conduct a confidential survey to find out if bullying is a problem in the workplace to encourage all members to participate. Ensure you ask questions to find out about sexual and other harassment from colleagues and clients. Most unions have sample surveys you could use, or adapt another union's to suit your workplace, for example the UCU Bullying and harassment toolkit, or design your own.

Safety representatives can use their routine inspections or undertake special inspections to speak to members about bullying at work.

Bullying policy and procedure

Safety representatives can urge their employer to have procedures in place to prevent bullying at work.

Find out if there already is a policy and procedure, and if not then use ideas from the ACAS model or your own or another union to negotiate a policy. Commitments required from employers include:

  • recognition that bullying and harassment occur
  • a serious statement that they are unacceptable and will not be tolerated
  • a code of positive acceptable behaviour
  • a jointly agreed policy and procedures for investigating and dealing with bullying and harassment
  • complaints to be taken seriously and confidentiality assured
  • the provision of support including access to trained and confidential counsellors for the victim and for others who witness bullying and harassment
  • training in the policy and procedure to ensure that all staff, including managers and supervisors, know what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at work
  • ensuring protection from cyber-bullying and harassment is included in all policies and procedures, which may require a separate social media policy.

If social media such as a branch or workplace Facebook page or Twitter feed is being established for organising and campaigning, then all members should be trained in the dangers and how to keep safe from trolls, while not falling foul of employers' policies.

Further information

(in alphabetical order)


Bullying and harassment guides

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

CIPD fact sheet Harassment and Bullying at Work revised August 2016

Hazards magazine

Excellent news and resources from Hazards magazine.

Health and Safety Executive

Advice on bullying and harassment.

Labour Research Department

Tackling Bullying and Harassment £4.95


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