Workplace Bullying - How to Recognise and Remedy It | XCD

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Unfortunately, bullies are more common than you might like to think.

According to research from the healthcare provider BUPA, one in four employees said they’d experience being bullied in the workplace at least once in the last three years. A quarter of all employees!

In some sectors those numbers were higher, with a third of retail employees, 30% of transportation workers, and 29% of education employees reporting recent experience of workplace bullying.

Is it acceptable? No. Is it possible to prevent it entirely? Probably not. Part of the beauty of this job is the complexity of people. But those complexities, like people, cover the full range of human behaviour, which doesn’t always show us in our best light.

But as HR professionals, we should ensure our teams have the ability to spot the signs of harassment or bullying occurring in the workplace, the processes in place to act swiftly and decisively, and the right tools to support victims.

As employers, we have a legal duty of care to protect our employees while they’re at work, which includes dealing with issues resulting from bullying and harassment.

That’s what this article is about. Recognising and dealing with workplace bullying.

What is workplace bullying?

Unlike harassment, which is well defined in the 2010 Equality Act in line with protected characteristics, there’s isn’t a legal definition of bullying, which means it can cover an enormous range of behaviours.

ACAS defines it like this: “Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure.”

This could be a single incident or a prolonged pattern of behaviour. It may be face to face, over the phone, through online messengers, emails, texts, sticky notes, gestures… any unwanted behaviour. We might be talking about name calling, gossiping, undermining, offensive or derogatory remarks. It may be associated with the way assignments are distributed by a manager, or somebody being excluded from conversations and social events.

Bullying can be subtle and insidious, like people being set up to fail with unreasonable deadlines or insufficient resources. Or explicit, like pranks, spreading rumours or verbal abuse.

One of the most common sources of bullying claims is performance feedback. Constructive criticism, even professionally delivered, can be misconstrued as a personal attack or abusive conduct, arising from miscommunication, personality clashes or inexperienced line management.

Whatever your initial assessment, what matters is impact on and perception of the complainant. These claims must be investigated. If someone feels bullied, it’s not banter. If a manager’s behaviour makes someone feel awful, isolated, reluctant to come to work or take part in online calls, something is going seriously wrong in the relationship between that employee and their boss.

In short, bullying and harassment is a hot, complex, emotionally charged mess of sometimes vague unpleasantness, where one person’s bullying is another’s banter. The two sides of the story will never align and it’s usually HR’s responsibility to unpick the facts in relation to the evidence. That’s why we love this job, right?

Left unchecked, improperly handled, or ignored, the situation risks serious harm to the victim, allows a potential bully to continue humiliating and abusing, destroying company culture, employee relations and productivity, and leaves the employer open to legal action through allegations of constructive dismissal or discrimination.

Is workplace bullying illegal?

Surprisingly, there are no laws against workplace bullying. However, where bullying can be alleged to have tipped into harassment, employees then have a right to make a complaint to an employment tribunal. Bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle and important difference between the two.

Harassment occurs where the unwanted behaviour in question involves any of an individual’s ‘protected characteristics’:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Some workplace bullying will inevitably cross the line into harassment, and because these characteristics are protected by law, where harassment is claimed, the situation immediately becomes more fraught for the alleged perpetrator and the employer.

In 2021, Royal Mail was ordered to pay £230,000 to a former employee after his claims of bullying were not adequately dealt with. Office ‘banter’ that makes fun of someone’s sexual orientation, unwanted sexual attention, throwaway quips about age, disability, religion – none of it is acceptable in today’s modern professional workplace.

This wasn’t always the case. And some people find it easier than others to adapt their behaviour to our changing cultural norms, which is why clear anti-bullying policies and regular employee communication to reinforce them can save so much time and anguish.

What is an anti-bullying policy?

An anti-bullying policy helps employers and employees negate much of the grey area around bullying and harassment.

  • It states in clear terms the behaviours that are unacceptable in the workplace
  • It suggests actions that may be taken ahead of making an official report, like speaking to the alleged bully about the impact of their behaviour or raising their concerns with a member of the HR department or a manager
  • It explains the process for employees who wish to report unwanted behaviour, either against them or a colleague
  • It unequivocally states that all reports will be treated confidentially, meaning individuals can feel confident in reporting issues without fear of reprisals

How should HR respond to claims of workplace bullying or harassment?

All incidents of bullying and harassment must be taken seriously – and be seen to be taken seriously. All parties must be assured that the claim will be appropriately investigated and treated in confidence.

The workplace situation must be addressed immediately. Suspension of the alleged bully can be considered but should not be the default response until the facts are clear – or unless there is a reasonable justification. In most cases it’s preferable, if possible, to shuffle roles, locations or reporting structures while an investigation is carried out. Only once a decision is reached can appropriate disciplinary action be considered.

Accusations and sensitive details must be kept securely under wraps as much as possible by all parties so as not to prejudice an investigation that may involve additional witnesses. The complainant may not wish that certain details be disclosed, and the accused risks serious reputational damage if unproven allegations become widely known.

How to investigate workplace bullying or harassment

Usually, a workplace bullying investigation will be conducted by a HR manager or senior manager within the organisations. Speed is key, for the sake of employee relationship management. One of the worst things we can do here is let it all to blow over while we complete a long investigation, only to rake it all back up again once we’ve completed.

The objective is to arrive at a clear finding, one way or the other. By interviewing the involved parties, any witnesses, and by reviewing available workplace communications, we seek to establish the facts and identify where lessons can be learned.

Stick to the facts. Impartiality can be tough to maintain in an emotionally charged situation where it’s easy to become distracted by those emotions. An appropriate workplace investigation must focus on the facts. Document objective facts and evidence and ensure opinions do not creep into the final report.

Depending on the seriousness of the allegations, you or the employee may wish to bring in a third party to investigate the allegations. If your workplace is unionised, the employee has a right to get the union involved by filing a formal grievance rather than relying on an internal investigation. Where senior management is involved in the allegation, it may be better to bring in an external investigator to avoid claims of prejudice.


XCD helps employers keep track of their employee data, including performance information, so that when incidents need investigation, that information is only a couple of clicks away. If you’d like to see how it works or arrange a demo, click here.