A guide to dealing with bullying and harassment in the workplace

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Bullying and harassment of any description should not be tolerated in a workplace. This guide offers employers practical advice to help prevent workplace bullying and harassment as well as how to deal with any such cases that may occur.

What is bullying and harassment?

There are many examples and definitions of what may be considered bullying and harassment. The terms are used interchangeably and bullying itself can be a form of harassment.

Usually a person making a complaint would define bullying and harassment as something that has happened to them which they feel is unwelcome or unwanted and that may have been offensive or intimidating. It can be persistent or an isolated incident. It can also have a huge impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing, potentially impacting on their life outside of the workplace too.

Harassment of a sexual nature is one of the most common forms of harassment and is specifically outlawed by the Equality Act 2010, as is harassment related to relevant protected characteristics: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnerships; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as: “Unwanted  conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

What constitutes “bullying” is less clear, as there is currently no legislation that clearly defines it unless it is related to a protected characteristic. There is however an implied duty of care for the employer to ensure its staff have a working environment that does not adversely affect their health and safety. If the individual feels that this has not been provided, or their complaints have not been addressed, in some cases they may resign and bring claims for constructive dismissal. 

Whilst it may be easy to identify extreme, overt cases of bullying and harassment, there is sometimes a grey area in relation to what would be considered bullying. It is therefore good practice for employees to give examples of what is unacceptable behaviour in their organisation making the point that it does not necessarily have to be face-to-face but can occur in written communications, visual images or over the phone.

Examples of bullying or harassment could include:

  • making offensive or intimidating comments or jokes;
  • unreasonable or impossible deadlines to work to;
  • blocking opportunities or making threats about job security without foundation;
  • spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone verbally or by behaviour;
  • unfair treatment; or
  • deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and/ or constant criticism.

Examples of sexual harassment could include:

  • making unwelcome sexual advances or touching in an intrusive way;
  • making sexual jokes;
  • displaying pornographic photographs or sending such material.

It is important that employers take action on bullying and harassment as if it is not dealt with or is badly handled it can create serious problems for organisations, including:

  • poor employee relations;
  • poor performance;
  • lost productivity;
  • absence;
  • resignations;
  • damage to company reputation; 
  • Employment Tribunal claims.

Employers also need to be aware that from 26 October 2024 the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Act will introduce a new duty on employers to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment taking place. Should it be found that there has been a failure to do so following an Employment Tribunal claim for harassment, any awards of compensation may be increased by up to 25% and there is the risk of action being taken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

What should organisations do?

Unfortunately it is not always possible to prevent bullying from taking place, but there are steps that an organisation can take to promote a safe, healthy and fair environment for people to work in.


Whenever a case of bullying or harassment arises employers should take the opportunity to examine its policies, procedures and working methods to see if they can be improved.

If an organisation does not already have one it is sensible to consider framing a workplace policy on bullying and harassment. This will help to ensure that all employees are aware of what will not be tolerated, what may constitute bullying and harassment and the fact that bullying and harassment may be treated as a disciplinary offence. It should be made clear to all staff that the policy applies to them whether they are on work premises or are working away from their base office. The policy should also set out treatment by staff and by clients and customers that the organisation will not tolerate. 

In addition, all organisations large and small should have policies and procedures for dealing with grievances and disciplinary matters. In particular, individuals should note who they can speak to if they have a work-related problem. Managers should be trained in all aspects of the organisation’s policies. 

If an individual does raise allegations of bullying and harassment it would almost certainly be considered to be a grievance and should be dealt with in accordance with an employer’s own policies.

Any complaint should be investigated promptly and objectively, and taken seriously. Those investigating the claims of harassment should consider all of the circumstances including the fact that the perception of the complainant as harassment is often felt differently by different people. 

It should not be underestimated how much time and effort can be required to complete an investigation correctly. In cases of bullying, employers may find that there are dozens of people they need to interview as part of an investigation, and that’s before you even get to the administrative part of the process, such as documenting minutes from meetings, etc. Taking senior managers away from their day job and the possibility of exposing the organisation to unnecessary liability is not what any organisation wants. Therefore, seeking external legal support in managing an investigation can be invaluable to undertake the investigative work with impartiality and independence, which employers who conduct their own investigations often struggle with.


Training should be given to all staff on what is and is not acceptable behaviour and this should be regularly updated. 

Those who are in line management roles should also be trained on all policies including those relating to disciplinary and grievances. That training should cover not only how to deal with the individual accused but also how to deal with the complainant. 

Training should include the fact that employees may be held personally liable for harassment and named as an individual party in discrimination proceedings in the Employment Tribunal.

Line managers should receive training on effective communication as well as managing performance and teams so that they are confident they can communicate effectively with their team members and reduce the risk that constructive feedback is viewed to be bullying and/ or harassment. 

Show a clear commitment

Senior individuals within the organisation should also be seen to set the right example and adhere to policy. The message should be that the organisation has zero tolerance to any breaches of the policy.

All staff should feel confident that if they do raise a complaint it will be investigated in a confidential and sensitive way and without fear of reprisal. Staff should know that there is a supportive culture and that they have someone to speak to if they feel there is an issue.

As such, an organisation should show its commitment to having a workplace culture of dignity and respect by having comprehensive policies in place and by acting upon complaints that are raised and taking appropriate action against those who don’t adhere to these where necessary. 

Exit interviews

Employers should hold exit interviews with departing employees. This may be the only time that a person is prepared to discuss the behaviour of an individual. This would be particularly useful if your organisation has a high turnover of staff as that may indicate that there is an issue and perhaps that bullying and harassment has become a problem for the organisation.

Act upon any adverse feedback so as to prevent other individuals from feeling the same and the behaviour of the individual continuing or escalating.

Staff surveys

Staff surveys may assist organisations, particularly larger ones, in identifying if there are any issues within certain teams or departments that could be construed as being contrary to its values and/ or policies. 

Again, if there is any adverse feedback from the survey once it has been obtained it really should be acted upon. To obtain it and to then ignore it would send out the wrong message to an organisation’s staff and even to its clients and customers if it became known it was being ignored.

How do we deal with complaints?

Informal resolution

In some cases it may be possible to deal with matters informally. Sometimes individuals are not aware that their behaviour is unwelcome and an informal discussion can sometimes correct that behaviour. It may be that the individual can do this directly or they may need support from HR or a manager. 

Organisations should set out in its grievance policy the various steps for raising a complaint and quite often this will include informal resolution. This will not always be possible and complainants should not be discouraged from making a complaint formal if they wish to do so. 


It may be appropriate for the complainant to attend mediation with the individual they have complained about. 

This would be a voluntary process and ordinarily involves an independent third person or mediator to attempt to find a solution to the issues that the parties have. This may have the effect of repairing the working relationship. It may, however, not be possible to reach a resolution in which case the complainant should be allowed the opportunity to have their complaint formally dealt with.

Formal process

It may be that the complainant does not wish for their complaint to be dealt with informally and/ or to attend mediation. In those circumstances an employer should follow its own grievance procedure, deal with matters objectively and thoroughly investigate the complaint.

There may be some overlap with the disciplinary procedure here particularly as the outcome of the grievance may well be that some action needs to be taken against the individual who has been complained about.

Disciplinary procedure

Again, it is important to follow a fair procedure. This means in the case of a complaint of bullying and harassment there must be fairness to both the complainant and the person complained about. 

It would be sensible to include within the disciplinary process reference to bullying and harassment being an example of gross misconduct.

Before imposing a disciplinary sanction you must consider whether it is reasonable in light of all the facts to do so. It may be concluded that disciplinary sanctions are not appropriate and the individual who has been complained about may need to attend counselling or training as an alternative in order to ensure that they change their behaviour. In any event, before imposing a disciplinary sanction you should ensure that the disciplinary policy and procedure has been followed in full.

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