Identifying bullying in the workplace

Mark is an Employment Law expert, HR Specialist and Managing Director of Castle Associates Ltd.

Think of a bully…and the image most likely to come to mind is that of a big thug throwing his weight around and being threatening and aggressive.

Bullies come in all shapes and sizes and are male and female. The idea of the workplace bully shouting, swearing and acting violently is, hopefully, an extreme example.

Bullying can be much more subtle than that, and identifying, investigating and dealing with it successfully is a challenge for any employer.

ACAS in its Bullying and Harassment at Work guide(1) says bullying can be characterised as: Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Bullying can be a one off incident or part of a pattern of unacceptable behaviour. It can be verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse.

There will be clear cut cases where the evidence of bullying is quite obvious. Equally there will be cases where it is not so obvious. This is particularly pertinent given the growing trend to excuse bullying behaviour by claiming ‘it was just banter.”

Victims of bullying will often complain of being bullied and harassed. 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(2).

It is important to differentiate between bullying and harassment, because although they are similar, they are different. Harassment differs because it is a form of discrimination.

Bullying can take many forms including; physical assault, teasing, making threats, name calling and cyber bullying

Examples of bullying behaviour include:

  • Verbal abuse and insults.
  • Mocking and belittling someone.
  • Exclusion or victimisation.
  • Intimidating behaviour.
  • Causing a person to fear for their job security.
  • Unnecessary and unfair criticism.
  • Spreading malicious or false rumours about someone.
  • Overbearing supervision

The impact of bullying on the victim can be devastating. It can affect their performance at work, cause psychological problems such as depression and stress-related illnesses and also result in physical health problems.

There have been cases where bullying at work has been linked to a worker’s suicide(3) and where it has been suspected to have played a major role in a death(4).

Employers should take a zero tolerance approach to any type of bullying. Staff should be empowered and feel confident to raise any such concerns.

All employers have a duty of care to their employees to protect them from bullying and harassment. They also have responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for the welfare of employees.

A previous survey by ACAS revealed it received 20,000 calls about bullying in one year(5). Reasons for the calls included humiliation, ostracism, verbal and physical abuse.  ACAS found bullying was most common in certain groups, which include: public sector ethnic minority workers, women in male dominated occupations, workers with a disability and gay, lesbian and transgender employees.

Many organisations now have a detailed bullying and harassment or a dignity at work policy that a worker can use to raise a complaint about bullying.

Organisations should devise and implement a policy to deal with bullying and harassment and promote a culture where such behaviour is not tolerated. Employers should be conscious of workplace factors associated with bullying, and be proactive in taking steps to address them. 

Where there is not a specific policy employees should be able to raise any complaints about bullying by raising a grievance(6). Any procedure designed to tackle bullying should clearly set out the process that will be followed to hear, investigate and address the complaint.


  1. Bullying and harassment | Acas advice and guidance. 2015 Nov 16; Available from:
  2. Participation E. Equality Act 2010 [Internet]. Available from:
  3. “I was bullied to death” - Manchester Evening News [Internet]. [cited 2017 Jul 31]. Available from:
  4. Audi garage not to blame for bullied mechanic killing himself, coroner rules | UK news | The Guardian [Internet]. [cited 2017 Jul 31]. Available from:
  5. Milligan B. Workplace bullying on the rise in UK, says Acas. BBC News [Internet]. 2015 Nov 16; Available from:
  6. Dealing with Grievances [Internet]. Castle Associates Ltd. 2014. Available from:

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