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Advice for Bullying in the Workplace

UK employment law offers protection against workplace bullying, but this protection might be difficult to get enforced without proper legal guidance.

Call us at 0333 305 937 if you are a victim of bullying to seek legal advice and support from competent employment experts on how to proceed.

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    What is Workplace Bullying?

    Workplace bullying is a type of behaviour carried out by teammates or managers/superiors aimed at inducing psychological damage towards a member of the workforce.

    This behaviour is described as malicious, offensive, humiliating, or intimidating. On the part of superiors, it can manifest as an abuse of power that undermines their inferiors and causes them work-related stress. It may or may not involve physical violence, though the main effect is psychological in nature.

    A victim of bullying can potentially develop low self-esteem and depression, as well as a lack of motivation to work.

    If you are experiencing bullying at work, we can help. Call us at 0333 305 937 for legal advice and support from our employment lawyers.

    Examples of Bullying in the Workplace

    Some examples of bullying include:

    • Public belittling or undeserved open criticism.
    • Having you barred from attending meetings you would be expected to attend.
    • Blocking from training or promotion opportunities unjustifiably.
    • Issuing frequent threats to your job security.
    • Sending aggressive messages through digital means such as mobile phones (cyberbullying).
    • Being placed under unfavourable working conditions so that you fail to meet your goals or struggle to meet them.
    • Making unwarranted poor assessments during your performance reviews or having your job more severely scrutinised with respect to that of your peers.

    Bullying vs. Harassment

    Even though both terms are normally utilised interchangeably, they don’t refer to the exact same situation. Harassment is a special type of bullying behaviour that targets employees based on a relevant “protected characteristic”.

    While bullying is not always a pursuable or claimable offence in itself (more on this later), harassment at work is. In addition, both offences may refer to either a major incident or a series of smaller episodes that create a cumulative effect.

    What is a Relevant Protected Characteristic?

    A protected characteristic is defined as a personal trait that is very prone to lead to unfair discrimination according to current social prejudices. There is a total of nine characteristics identified as “protected” according to the Equality Act 2010. These are:

    Age

    While there are specific situations wherein positive discrimination can be applied to people according to age (such as “age of consent regulations”), age difference can also lead to negative indirect or direct discrimination (sometimes called “ageism”) at the workplace.

    If your age with respect to the rest of the workforce is below or above average, you may be exposed to being belittled or treated poorly. For example, you could be asked to work more hours or perform more tasks than any other employee of the same category.

    Age can also lead to offensive jokes or comments either directed at you or a close associate.

    Disability

    The Equality Act defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment” with a considerable long-term effect on an individual’s ability to perform day-to-day activities.

    Long-term may refer to a condition that may last more than a year or one that is recurrent. Meanwhile, day-to-day activities could include taking baths, getting up, walking, sitting down normally, and other such actions that ordinarily would be taken for granted.

    The scope of the definition has been broadened in recent years to include people with HIV, cancer, multiple sclerosis or other such ailments. However, illnesses related to stress and depression can be harder to pin down.

    Race

    Race is a trait that can identify your national or ethnic background. It can be a physical or cultural trait, and, as such, it could identify people with similar cultural values, albeit with no standard physical features (such as Jews).

    Racist incidents need not occur only on the grounds of skin colour. Racism can be based on the other’s nationality or citizenship. Those who are from nation-states under political confrontation may, at times, engage in racial slurs, even when there may be no clear contrasting physical or cultural element that differentiates them.

    Religious Belief

    This characteristic covers all recognised creeds and people who don’t profess to belong to any form of organised religion (atheists or agnostics).

    There are various ways in which an employer could harass employees based on religious belief. For example, when an employer sets goals that they know the employee cannot achieve without violating a religious precept, such as observing a major holiday or a dietary requirement, this could be counted as an instance of harassing behaviour.

    Sexual Orientation

    Employees are protected against bigotry or derogatory behaviour towards them on account of their sexual preference. If you are LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, or asexual/aromantic) and you are continually discriminated against or mocked by your employer for being in that group, you could file a harassment claim.

    Examples include the use of homophobic language or direct verbal or physical abuse.

    Sex

    This protection applies to both men and women, even though the majority of harassment cases concerning sex have traditionally been towards females.

    Some examples of harassment due to sex are:

    • Unwelcome advances of a sexual nature, such as sensual touching or standing too close.
    • Hinging a promotion or a decision to grant a benefit or leave on a sexual favour.
    • Making derogatory remarks towards the person’s sex creating a working environment that’s hostile to their sexual group.

    Sexual harassment is an exceptional type of action that may require specialised legal assistance. In some extreme cases (such as rape or sexual assault), the victimiser could be criminally charged.

    Maternity/Pregnancy

    Women who are pregnant deserve special protection against discriminatory behaviour, some of which can be classed as harassment. This protection also extends towards people who are caring for a newborn or young kid.

    Examples of harassment due to pregnancy/maternity include:

    • The continuous assignment of tasks that can put their unborn child or their own health in jeopardy.
    • Not allowing time off for pregnancy-related medical appointments or to fulfil parental responsibilities.
    • Making humiliating comments regarding their pregnancy or their children.

    Marriage/Civil Partnership

    According to the Equality Act, you should not be harassed or discriminated against because you are married or in a civil partnership.

    You are considered legally married if your union is recognised under UK law as a valid marriage, even if the marriage was celebrated abroad. Civil partnerships must be registered as such according to the Civil Partnership Act 2004.

    You enjoy this protection even if you were separated, but the union was not officially dissolved.

    Gender Reassignment

    Gender reassignment deals with people who identify as members of a different gender than that with which they were assigned when they were born. Gender is determined at birth by the genitalia, but in accordance with UK law, people are free to choose the gender they feel comfortable with as they grow.

    The High Court of the United Kingdom, in a recent ruling, stated that children 4 years of age or older could decide which gender they want to live as. This is considered by LGBTQIA+ activists as an important milestone in ensuring further transgender protection.

    Employers and co-workers are not allowed to harass you based on your gender reassignment. To illustrate, they cannot:

    • Make hateful or abject statements towards transgenderism in general or your particular condition as a transgender person.
    • Physically or mentally assault you.
    • Hinder your work due to your transgender status.

    We provide support and advice concerning bullying in the workplace. Get in touch with us today to discuss.

    Discrimination and Victimisation

    Discrimination is an action from the employer by which you feel excluded due to a protected characteristic. It differs from harassment in that It doesn’t have to consist of insulting behaviour nor generate a hostile work environment. The mere adverse effect of the action is enough to warrant a discrimination claim.

    Victimisation is similar to bullying or harassment. It refers to a detriment you may be subjected to after making a discrimination complaint, regardless of whether the discriminatory act was directed against you or someone else.

    In general, a detriment refers to any measure that puts you at a clear disadvantage within the workplace. The employer in this scenario could deny you a promotion or treat you with contempt following your complaint or the mere suspicion that you’d submit said complaint. Other examples include not being invited to social events that you would’ve otherwise attended had you not raised the grievance.

    You wouldn’t need to have a protected characteristic yourself in order to benefit from victimisation protection in accordance with the Equality Act, though at least the person you defended must have been discriminated against due to one of the protected characteristics mentioned above.

    Excuses

    Some excuses brought up usually by employers and co-workers are:

    • The “banter” excuse.
    • The “constructive criticism” excuse.
    • Victim provocation or personality clash.

    With that said, some of these and other excuses could, at times, be justified, though not without sufficient proof.

    The “Banter” Excuse

    Managers tend to utilise the “banter excuse” as an escape route when confronted with accusations of bullying. This happens especially in contexts in which this type of behaviour is continually encouraged, such as in the banking sector.

    While banter is typically allowed, you’d have to set the boundaries and let your manager/employer know at which point it becomes distressing. If after speaking to your manager the attitude doesn’t change, you could take the matter to a formal grievance procedure or even a judicial process.

    It’s admittedly hard to know where to draw the line at times. Some jokes could be so offensive that no further proof is necessary regarding the offender’s intention, particularly when they touch upon one of the protected characteristics described earlier. However, when it comes to pure bullying, you’d want to bring as much evidence as possible (including witnesses).

    The “Constructive Criticism” Excuse

    Constructive criticism is a form of rebuke that is presumed to provide feedback and is not meant to destroy the criticised person’s character or to make them feel uncomfortable.

    Some managers routinely offer genuine constructive criticism, though not always in the correct manner. This applies not only to the words used but also to the context and tone in which the objection was voiced.

    For example, if you have been wrongly and rashly accused of a misdeed and/or your superior used harsh words when rebuking you (and, what’s more, in front of colleagues, clients, and/or associates), you could let them know informally that they crossed the line. If the unwanted conduct keeps taking place even after they’ve been warned, you can take the necessary legal actions.

    It’s always important to try to presume no ill will from the other party and to only move forward with a formal complaint process once it’s been established that it turned into a personal affair.

    Victim Provocation or Personality Clash

    It’s normal to experience friction within the workplace, but when a co-worker or employer goes to the extreme of excluding, humiliating or even physically/mentally assaulting a person – especially because of a protected characteristic – these can no longer be considered mere clashes and the behaviour can’t be excused or attributable to the victim’s action or attitude.

    Responsibility for Employee’s Behaviour

    While the rule of thumb in UK law is that people are liable for their own actions (personal liability), you could take employers to a tribunal process not only for personal bullying or harassment against you but for bullying or harassment by co-workers (vicarious liability).

    This liability could be determined if, for instance:

    • You submitted a grievance detailing your situation and your employer either did not even consider evaluating it or didn’t believe it warranted disciplinary action.
    • They have witnessed the bullying or harassment but did not react accordingly.
    • They didn’t deal with the offenders after affirming that they would.

    Establishing anti-bullying or anti-harassment policies is not enough. These policies must be enforced whenever these issues are brought up, for it’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure their employees’ well-being at all times.

    Employers may be freed from any responsibility if they show that they did everything in their power to prevent the situation from escalating or that they took disciplinary measures against the perpetrators.

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    We can help you if you have experienced workplace bullying. Contact us today.

    What Legal Actions Could Victims of Bullying or Harassment Take?

    As an employee, you have these options:

    Grievance

    It’s always commendable to try to reach amicable solutions with your superiors before moving ahead with formal actions. This includes contacting them and explaining in respectful ways what exactly bothered you. This is sometimes called an “informal grievance” and is dealt with in an extra official fashion. In any case, it’s always useful to handle the matter by writing as well so that you can have records of the proceedings.

    If you feel that the situation calls for a formal grievance, you need to find out if your workplace has a formal procedure. You should be able to locate your employer’s grievance procedure in the staff handbook or the contract of employment. If you’re not sure where to look, you could ask your superior, manager, or the company or firm’s Human Resources department. In the absence of an internal procedure, try to draft a letter or email directed towards all of the above with the following mentions:

    • The reason why you are raising a grievance.
    • The evidence you’re attaching to your petition.
    • What you wish your employer to do about your issue.

    Your employer should follow the Acas Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures when examining your case if there are no internal guidelines.

    Constructive Dismissal Claim

    There is no specific legal action for bullying at the judicial level. However, you could bring up episodes of bullying to justify a constructive dismissal claim.

    Constructive dismissal is an action or series of actions on the part of the employer that may be collectively understood as a serious breach of the employment contract as it undermines mutual trust. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a dismissal, it can be taken as such owing to the extent and nature of the breaches.

    In this specific case, bullying is a violation of the explicit or implicit term of mutual respect and, hence, should be deemed a repudiation of the contract, in which case the employee is justified to end the relationship and file a claim before an employment tribunal.

    Keep in mind that the judge will still have to assess the gravity of the fault committed by the employer to determine whether the claim is justified or not. You ought to make sure that you’ve already spoken to your employer about these issues before submitting your employment tribunal claim, making them aware that their attitude or that of your co-workers was out of line (provided that it was not clear from the onset). Otherwise, you risk your claim getting rejected.

    Harassment Claims

    Harassment or victimisation claims can be made in order to receive compensation for moral injuries (or “injury to feelings”) resulting from the co-worker’s or employer’s actions.

    You won’t need to resign from your position before making the claim, contrary to what would be required in the case of a constructive dismissal claim. Also, this award can be claimed regardless of the time you have worked for the company. You could theoretically file the claim even if the harassment occurred on the first day at work.

    The award granted is based on the Vento guidelines (which were developed in the Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police 2003 case) and can range from £900 (lower band) to £44,000 (upper band) or even beyond that last amount in the most extreme cases.

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    Get in touch with our team today to learn more about our professional services and to find out how we can help.

    How We Can Help You

    Harassment and bullying are, sadly, very common occurrences in workplaces across the UK. If you’re being harassed or bullied, you shouldn’t wait too long before taking decisive action, as that could potentially have irreversible effects on your mental well-being and your ability to undertake any other job in the future.

    We ought to stress that you are protected not only from bullying or harassment but also from any measures that your superior might take against you after you uphold your employment rights. Many affected employees refrain from making legal claims out of fear of retaliation, but waiting is not an option either. What’s more, you’ll fare worse if you decide to let these unfortunate episodes slip under the radar.

    Our legal team can give expert advice adjusted to the nuances of your given situation. Moreover, our consultations are entirely confidential, and you can rest assured that whatever is disclosed in them will not transcend the confines of our meeting space.

    If you are in need of professional advice on bullying and harassment or wish to know more about the services we offer, dial 0333 305 9375. Our employment solicitors are at your service!

    Our expert employment support and advice sessions are available in person at our offices, or via the phone.

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    Frequently Asked Questions

    If the statements concern your family member’s protected characteristic, you could bring a legal claim for harassment against the offender and your employer. Otherwise, you could only proceed with a constructive dismissal claim for bullying or for failure to stop or prevent bullying behaviours.

    You could ask your employer to call the police if you’ve been:

    • Physically or sexually assaulted.
    • Victim of homophobic/racist abuse or any other type of hate crime.
    • You were threatened with violence.

    Acas recommends that you get advice from a relevant helpline or charity before proceeding with a police report.

    Unfortunately, you may not be able to claim constructive unfair dismissal before reaching 24 months’ employment. However, you could lodge your claim sooner in the case of harassment since it involves discrimination law and basic employment rights.

    Be mindful also that you have three months minus one day from the date of the last offence or the employment’s termination to submit the claim form. Otherwise, it’s understood that you waived your right.

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