Bullied at work? Don't suffer in silence

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
10 Nov 2015

What is workplace bullying?

Usually, if you genuinely feel you are being singled out for unfair treatment by a boss or colleague, you are probably being bullied. Although there is no comprehensive list of bullying behaviours, and there is no one type of person who is likely to be a bully, the list below should give an idea of some behaviour which constitutes workplace bullying.

Bullying behaviour can include:

  • competent staff being constantly criticised, having responsibilities removed or being given trivial tasks to do
  • 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

The cost of bullying to you

Stress and ill-health can become part of the daily life of those being bullied.

Symptoms can include:

anxiety, headaches, nausea, ulcers, sleeplessness, skin rashes, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, tearfulness, loss of self-confidence, various illnesses of the organs such as the kidneys, thoughts of suicide

The cost of bullying to your boss

Bullying is recognised as a major cause of stress in the workplace and by law, stress must be dealt with in the same way as any other health and safety hazard.

Employers who fail to tackle bullying can pay a high price:

  • in lost time – because staff are affected by stress and ill-health
  • lost incentive – because morale is low
  • reduced work output and quality of service
  • and lost resources – because people who are trained, and experienced, leave the organisation
  • and if it goes to Employment Tribunal or to court they also face financial penalties and loss of reputation

Most importantly, employers who fail to tackle bullying are breaking the law. That’s why it is in everyone’s interest to take workplace bullying seriously.

The legal position

Employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. If they do not do this they are breaching an individual’s contract of employment. It may also be a breach of sexual harassment and racial discrimination legislation, and the bully could well be guilty of harassment. Employers and/or the bully may find themselves facing fines, compensation and in some cases even a jail sentence.

What to do if you are being bullied

If you feel you are being singled out or bullied at work, you should not have to put up with it. The worst thing to do is nothing and hope it goes away.

There are steps you can take. 

  1. First, if you feel confident to do so, speak to the bully. A direct approach is usually the best. Tell the person that you find their behaviour unacceptable and ask them to stop. This is sometimes all that is needed. Bullies do not like being confronted particularly by someone who is calm and civilised.
  2. The majority of bullying goes on behind closed doors. So tell a friend or work colleague. You may well find out you are not the only one who has suffered. It is important that you do not try to cope on your own.
  3. If you are in a union and there is a union representative where you work, tell them what has been happening. This will be in confidence and does not mean that a formal complaint will automatically be made. A safety rep will only do what you want them to and will give you the advice and support you need. They will want to have the bullying stopped quietly and quickly and can go with you to speak to the bully, or see them on your behalf. The union representative will also help you with a formal complaint, if it goes that far, giving advice and support throughout the procedure.
  4. If you are not already in a union – join one. You have every right to do so. You do not have to tell your employers, but if they find out, it is illegal for them to sack you or to cause you detriment. The union will listen to you and ensure you have the best advice. The union can give you free legal advice, support you, put you in touch with support groups and approach the employer on your behalf.
  5. Keep a diary. This will give a vital record of the nature of the bullying and when it occurred. It will be important when the bully is confronted. Many of the incidents may appear trivial in isolation so it is important to establish a pattern over a period of time.
  6. Tell your manager or supervisor. If it is one of them who is bullying you, go and tell their manager. Take your diary with you to back up what you have to say. They may not believe you but you have at least told them there is a bullying problem. The more people that know, the more difficult it is for the bully to flourish.
  7. In the end you may have to make a formal complaint and go through the grievance procedure. If you do take this route, never go to a meeting connected with the complaint without your union representative or a friend as a witness.

Get a better deal at work – join a union

When things go wrong at work – be it injury, illness, sex discrimination or bullying – unions are often the only way to secure redress or compensation. 

Unions work to ensure the workplace is a healthy environment and tackle bullying, harassment and discrimination aiming to win opportunities for all. Everyone has the right to join a union and your employer doesn’t even need to know you have joined. And at an average weekly rate of less than £2 a week, joining a union costs less than you think.

Find a union for you