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Bullying at work can never be acceptable. The TUC believes that all workers have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work and any form of bullying is totally unacceptable behaviour. In addition it can lead to work related stress and ill health for many workers.

In order to help union representatives ensure that bullying is not tolerated in the workplace, the TUC has this guide on how to tackle it. The guide makes it clear that unions are best placed to help give workers the confidence to challenge anyone they believe is bullying them, whatever their level in the organisation, and ensure that the employer takes action to protect the member and provide them with a safe and supportive workplace.


What is workplace bullying?

Usually if a person genuinely feels they are being singled out for unfair treatment by a boss or colleague they are probably being bullied, and there is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. 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 of the behaviours which constitute workplace bullying.

Bullying behaviour can include:

  • Someone being constantly criticised, having responsibilities removed or being given trivial tasks to do
  • Staff being shouted at
  • A person being persistently picked on in front of others, or in private
  • Having promotion blocked
  • Regularly making the same person the butt of jokes
  • Constantly attacking a member of staff in terms of their professional or personal standing
  • Setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work or setting impossible deadlines
  • Regularly and deliberately ignoring or excluding individuals from discussions or activities
  • Spreading malicious rumours or private or embarrassing information
  • Staff having their views and opinions ignored or demeaned.

Bullying does not have to be face to face and can include “cyber-bullying” which includes information being spread through email or social media.

The Extent of Bullying

Bullying can happen in any workplace regardless of employer, size or sector. The TUC survey of safety representatives published in 2018, showed 45% of safety representatives listed it as one of their top five workplace concerns. Overall it was the second biggest workplace issue after stress. Bullying/harassment was worst in local and central government, (cited by, respectively, 80% and 71% of respondents from those sectors).

A large survey on bullying at work by the University of Manchester showed that:

•           1 in 10 workers had been bullied in the last 6 months

•           1 in 4 workers had been bullied in the last 5 years

•           47% of workers had witnessed bullying at work

Another survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 20% had experienced some form of bullying or harassment over the past two years. The survey also reported that the groups most likely to become victims of bullying and harassment are black and Asian employees, women and people with a disability. Nearly one third (29 per cent) of Asian employees or those from other ethnic groups report having experienced some form of bullying or harassment compared with 18 per cent of white employees. Employees with disabilities are at least twice as likely to report having experienced one or more forms of bullying and harassment compared with non-disabled employees.

 Research has also shown that while managers and supervisors are more likely to be the bully, they can also be bullied, with 9% of senior managers report being targeted by bullies in the past 9 months. However, the most common type of bullying is by a manager against a subordinate.

Bullying can happen in any workplace regardless of employer, size or sector. The TUC survey of safety representatives published in 2018, showed 45% of safety representatives listed it as one of their top five workplace concerns. Overall it was the second biggest workplace issue after stress

The Cost of Bullying

The main cost of bullying is to the individual being bullied. 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, and depression. In addition, employers pay a high price for failing to tackle bullying because of lost time by staff being affected by stress and ill health, lost incentives when morale is low and reduced work output and quality of service in organisations where bullying is endemic. Also workplaces with a culture of bullying are likely to have a much higher staff turnover.

However, it must be recognised that bullying is not just a question of an individual picking on someone weaker or more vulnerable than them. Often it is a symptom of the culture within the organisation. If an employer makes it quite clear they will not accept bullying, and are prepared to take action against anyone found to have bullied a colleague then bullying can be stopped in its tracks.

The Law

Although there is no one specific law that outlaws workplace bullying, that does not mean that employers do not have a legal duty to prevent it. All employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. That includes protection from bullying and harassment at work. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations also require employers to assess the nature and the scale of workplace risks to health and safety, ensure there are proper control measures in place, and take action to remove or avoid these risks wherever possible as far is as reasonably practical.

The Health and Safety Executive also states that “there should be systems in place to deal with interpersonal conflicts such as bullying and harassment”.

The Employment Rights Act 1996 allows employees to claim unfair dismissal if they are forced the leave their job because of actions by their employer or a failure to deal with any complaint. This can include failure by the employer to protect their employees from bullying and harassing behaviour. Often harassment is motivated by a workers sex, sexuality, race or disability and in these cases claim may also be able to be taken under the appropriate equality legislation. Causing a person harassment, alarm, or distress is also a criminal act and in certain circumstances the police can charge the harasser with a criminal offence. Also, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, victims of harassment can seek civil injunctions against behaviour which causes distress.

However, the priority for trade unions must be to prevent people being bullied in the first place. That means trying to eliminate it from the workplace. To do that it is important to focus on the bullying behaviour rather than the bullies themselves. This recognises that some people who bully do not do so knowingly, but specifically reflect a culture that is being allowed to develop within the workplace.

What safety representatives can do

There are a number of positive steps that safety representatives can take to raise awareness and tackle bullying in the workplace.

Use posters and leaflets to raise the issue of bullying with members and take the opportunity of discussing bullying with them to see if they think that there are any problems. Safety representatives should report their concerns and those of their members to management.

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

One of the best ways of assessing the scale of bullying within the workplace is to survey members. This can gather evidence on the scale and extent of bullying in the workplace and can either be done by the union or jointly with management. Any survey must be strictly confidential, but it is important that staff receive information on the overall findings from the survey. The results from any survey can help employers develop a policy on dealing with bullying and can also be of use in trying to change the behaviour of individual managers and staff. Download a sample survey form and adapt it to make sure it is relevant to your workplace.

Negotiating a policy

The responsibility to deal with bullying lies with management. To deal with bullying effectively, it must be seen as an organisational issue and action to prevent it must focus on stopping unwanted behaviour in general. If an employer simply concentrates on individual acts of bullying by blaming individuals, the underlying cause, which is often a management culture of bullying, will not be tackled.

Safety representatives should therefore aim to negotiate a policy on bullying with their employer. Ideally it should cover the following points:


This policy should include a definition of bullying and harassment with examples of unacceptable behaviour. There should also be a clear statement of commitment from the employer to tackle bullying and harassment. The policy must make clear that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated and that any complaints will be taken seriously, including through the use of disciplinary procedures if necessary.

Duties of managers

Any policy should make clear that every line manager or supervisor has a responsibility for preventing or eliminating bullying and harassment.

Prevention measures

The policy should outline what action will be taken to help prevent bullying and harassment at work including training of managers, support networks and information to staff.


Because many workers will not raise their concerns with their line manager, sometimes because the line manager is the person who may be the bully, it is important that there is a method of accessing help independent from a line manager. This can be a Human Resources officer, a bullying contact officer, or a phone line to an outside body such as an Employee Assistance Programme that can provide support and assistance.

Procedure for complaints

There must be, within the policy, a procedure to deal with complaints, including timescales for action. This may be part of the normal grievance procedure or separate from it. However, in many cases the normal grievance procedure may not be sufficient, particularly if the line manager is the person who is alleged to be the bully. Therefore, the procedure must allow complaints to be heard at a level above the line manager. The procedure should also ensure that where an allegation is made, the person who is alleging they are being bullied, is not moved unless at their own request. Instead the alleged bully should be moved if such action is deemed necessary.

The procedure should ensure that, where an allegation is made, the alleged bully may be given the opportunity of changing their behaviour. Often a bully is completely unaware that their behaviour may be seen to be unacceptable and the procedure should be flexible enough to allow matters to be raised informally at an early stage to see whether there can be a behaviour change without more formal measures being used.  Nevertheless, employers must be prepared to take disciplinary action against individual bullies to protect other staff. This should apply whatever level in the organisation the employee is at.

Draft Survey on Bullying

Download a sample survey form (doc). Please adapt it to make sure it is relevant to your workplace.

Further information

ACAS have produced guidance on bullying and harassment for both employers and employees at:

The TUC also has guidance on sexual harassment at

Many trade unions have draft policies on bullying available on their website.

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