Workplace bullying affects 1 in 10 people, with 15% of employees reporting that they were bullied between 2016 and 2019. Bullying is serious and can lead to severe consequences.

Bullying and harassment often go together, but legally they are different. Bullying doesn’t have a legal definition (yet) but we all understand what it means. It can be intimidating or insulting behaviour, intended to undermine or humiliate you. It is often a subtle abuse of power.

The legal meaning of harassment is where you suffer unlawful discrimination (for example because of your race or sex), through behaviour that is offensive, intimidating or hostile, and where the behaviour is intended to or has the effect of humiliating you. Often behaviour will be both bullying and harassment, but not always.

Bullying can cause distress, anxiety, loss of confidence and loss of sleep. This can translate to physical and mental illnesses, as well as hindering performance at work. It was found that 29.9% of NHS worker who reported that they were bullied experienced psychological distress as a result, with 80% of staff believing their wellbeing affects patient care. This is why it is important to put an end to workplace bullying as swiftly as possible.

What counts as workplace bullying?

‘Bullying’ is not defined in law, but ACAS defines bullying behaviour to be ‘malicious or offensive’ or as ‘an abuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm’. The UK Government define it as ‘behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended’.

Workplaces usually have an anti-bullying and harassment policy that will provide they’re own definition of bullying. This also helps to prevent future disagreements between employers and employees about what exactly bullying is.

Workplace bullying can be done by fellow colleagues, bosses and peers and can also be done ‘upward’, where staff bully someone who is above them.

Bullying can be a continuous or one-off event, can happen in person or online, and may not always be obvious. It can be direct, through physical or verbal abuse, or can be indirect, like isolating someone or deliberately ignoring them. Some examples of bullying in the workplace are:

  • being put down in meetings,
  • being humiliated in front of others or on social media,
  • being given a significant workload compared to others,
  • or a colleague spreading nasty rumours.

When bullying may be harassment

According to the Equality Act 2010, bullying can become harassment when it is targeted towards a protected characteristic:

  • age
  • disability
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation
  • gender reassignment

If someone as attacking a protected characteristic, it is possible to bring a discrimination or harassment claim.

What can an employee do?

Whilst it’s not possible to bring a claim on the basis of ‘bullying’ (unless it is attached to a protected characteristic) , there are other ways to stop workplace bullying. The CIPD says that the first step is to speak up to a senior manager or HR, so that something can be done to help.  ACAS recommend making a note of the bullying incidents with dates and times.

An informal word from HR can sometimes stop the bullying. However, this may not always be the case, so the next step is to raise a grievance for workplace bullying. The employer has a duty of care to protect their employees and keep them safe.

If the bullying is so severe that it leads to a resignation, the employee may be able to bring forward a constructive dismissal claim.

Constructive dismissal 

An employee can make a constructive dismissal claim if they resign on the basis that their employer breached their contract of employment. It would have to be as serious breach, for example:

  • being bullied or discriminated against,
  • not being paid the agreed amount,
  • or raising a grievance and the employer refusing to investigate.

What can employers do? 

It is important that the employer takes any complaints of workplace bullying seriously, and should treat them formally, just like grievance’s. They may need to enforce disciplinary action if the complaint holds-up, or they may roll out some new training for all staff, to ensure everyone understands and abides by their anti-bullying and harassment policy.

Workplace bullying not only inflicts emotional distress and mental anguish on the victims but also erodes employee morale, productivity, and overall organizational performance. The long-term consequences of such behaviour extend far beyond the immediate targets, as it negatively influences the entire workplace environment.

Upcoming changes

The Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, if passed, will make employers liable for third party harassment (for example from customers) of their employees if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

This was specifically removed as form of liability in 2013, and is particularly relevant to the hospitality sector, where employers now need to put employees’ rights before the custom of racist and sexist patrons. If the new duty is found to have been breached, there may in uplift of 25% added to any compensation.


In conclusion, the issue of workplace bullying in the UK is a pressing concern that demands immediate attention from employers, employees, and policymakers alike. Our examination of this pervasive problem suggests the problem is as old as, if not older, the Master and Servant 1867 and is here to stay, despite the profound impact that bullying can have on individuals and organizations.

Image used under CC courtesy of Smart Cities.