The Difference between Bullying and Harassment at Work

11 July 2017

Bullying and harassment in the workplace are situations where an employee feels they have been mistreated by their employer or a colleague. The two are understandably often linked together.

They are, however, two very distinct concepts when it comes to Employment Law.

Definitions of Bullying and Harassment

Bullying is not specifically defined by the law in England and Wales, but may be described as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour. It can include an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. Bullying may be physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct (such as deliberately excluding someone from a meeting for no good reason). Whether or not you are being bullied is a subjective matter, as different people will experience the same conduct in different ways.

Harassment on the other hand is well defined by the law in England and Wales. It’s defined as unwanted conduct relating to certain protected characteristics (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation) and has the purpose or effect of violating the individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. Harassment could be a verbal or written comment and what may be considered a 'joke'.

It is also possible to be the victim of sexual harassment in the event of a colleague making improper remarks or actions towards you of a sexual nature. This would apply even in situations outside of work such as office parties or “banter” between colleagues.

There may be circumstances that at first appear to be bullying but actually come under harassment if they involve a protected characteristic.

Protection under the Law

Bullying and harassment also have significant differences in the level of protection provided.

You cannot pursue a claim in the Employment Tribunal for bullying alone. Rather, bullying behaviour may form part of another claim being sought, in particular in constructive dismissal claims where the employee has had to resign due to the behaviour of their employer.

A claim for harassment can be pursued on its own either in an Employment Tribunal under the Equality Act 2010, or in the Civil Courts under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Bullied or Harassed at Work?

Regardless of the differences between bullying and harassment, the steps you should take if you are being bullied or harassed at work are the same.

In some circumstances, it may be appropriate for you to deal with the compliant on an informal basis. This can prevent the complaint escalating and can allow for it to be dealt with sensitively without the need to make the complaint formally.

If the complaint can’t be resolved informally, you could take formal action using the official procedures that your employer should have in place. As the victim of the bullying or harassment you could raise a grievance, or the person who carried out the bullying or harassment could be subject to a disciplinary.

An employer can be liable for bullying or harassment carried out by their employees. Bullying by your employer, or failure by your employer to prevent it, can lead to a breakdown of the mutual trust and confidence you share with them. In some extreme circumstances this can lead to a constructive dismissal situation where you’ve felt it necessary to resign as a result of the bullying or harassment.

It is important to bring any complaints to your employer’s attention at the first opportunity so that they can be resolved and prevented from happening again. It is advisable to keep records of discussions and meetings you have with your employer where you have raised your complaints.

If you believe you have been the victim of bullying or harassment by your employer or a colleague, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.

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