Being Accused of Bullying at Work? What to Do & Your Rights

For most of us, school is a distant memory, but bullying is not limited to playgrounds. It can happen in the workplace, and can have profound impacts upon the victims and the culture of the workplace itself. But what if you’re accused of bullying at work?

Being accused of being a bully in the workplace is a situation that can leave you feeling blindsided. The shock of an allegation of this nature can feel incredibly unfair.

Employers have a duty of care to take any accusations of harassment at work seriously, so they will have processes that must be followed. However, the legal obligation to exercise their duty of care for employee wellbeing also extends to the person accused of bullying.

This means they must also take your welfare into consideration.

Our guide will help you understand what workplace bullying is, your rights after the allegation is made, and insights into the process of investigating bullying in the workplace. We’ll also give guidance on how to respond.

What is Bullying at Work?

Bullying in the workplace can be any behaviour which undermines, belittles, or causes emotional harm to a victim. This type of behaviour can be insidious, and some perpetrators may not even be aware that what they are doing constitutes bullying.

The effects of being bullied can have a severe impact on the victim, and can create a toxic work environment for all employees.

Bullying in the workplace should be dealt with quickly. Employees have the right to feel comfortable, equal and safe in the workplace. Bullying can be obvious or subtle, in which case it may not be noticed by work colleagues.

Examples of workplace bullying include:-

  • Being spiteful to a colleague.
  • Embarrassing or making fun of someone.
  • Spreading malicious rumours.
  • Making someone feel worthless or incompetent.
  • Not allowing someone to do relevant training to further themselves.
  • Being offensive or intimidating.
  • Physically hurting someone.
  • Emotionally abusing a colleague.
  • Constant taunts and put downs.
  • Being treated differently from others.
  • Being threatened

Bullying isn’t always face to face and doesn’t have to happen on the work premises. It can take the form of social media posting, emails, or being harassed outside of work and at work events.

Upward Bullying

Often, when we think of bullying, we think of colleagues or senior management bullying those of a lower rank. However, it also takes the form of employees making their senior staff’s lives a misery by engaging in “upward bullying”.

For example:-

  • Being constantly disrespectful.
  • Refusal to complete deadlines or do the work set out.
  • Creating a hostile environment.
  • Undermining management or trying to make them look unskilled.

The Law on Workplace Bullying

Harassment at work is unlawful under the Equality Act of 2010, and bullying can be considered harassment in some scenarios defined within the act.

An employer who allows unchecked bullying and harassment can be held legally responsible for the effects on the victim. This means they could be liable to pay compensation to the victim as a result of a tribunal claim.

Where the bullying involves unwanted behaviours such as racism, discrimination or any of the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act of 2010, it will be unlawful.

Bullying at work which falls under the definition of harassment is where unwanted behaviours surround the following protected characteristics:-

  • Religion
  • Culture and race.
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment

What Happens After an Accusation of Bullying at Work?

When there has been an accusation of bullying at work, the situation should be dealt with promptly and in line with grievance and disciplinary procedures.

Your employer is legally bound to take accusations seriously, and will follow a formal procedure for investigating bullying in the workplace.

Do not let the formal nature of the process cause you stress. Be calm and communicative, but make sure you understand how to defend yourself.

Investigating Bullying in the Workplace – The Process

Accusations of bullying will be dealt with via a disciplinary process. It does not mean your workplace assumes you are guilty, and this will happen even when they suspect you’ve been unfairly accused.

This is the correct procedure to allow an investigation and for evidence to be heard from both parties.

Remember – if the evidence points to the allegations against you being false or malicious, it can leave the accuser open to disciplinary action.

Most employers will be able to refer to their own policy. If no such policy exists they should refer to ACAS guidelines to ensure fair process for all parties. The policy should ensure both parties are treated fairly whilst an investigation takes place.

Sometimes such matters may be able to be dealt with on an informal level. For example, a mediation meeting might be enough to resolve the situation.

Make sure you engage with this process. It is your opportunity to submit evidence in your defence. Lets take a look at all the elements of process you may face if mediation is not an option.

1. A Grievance Will Be Raised

The first thing to do when faced with a case of bullying is to ask the employee who has complained to raise a grievance.

This involves getting the complaint about bullying behaviours in writing so it can be dealt with formally. A grievance letter should be handed to the employer who can then decide on the next steps.

A grievance should be acknowledged, and then action should be taken to investigate the situation.

2. Suspension Pending Investigation

If the bullying is deemed serious, you may be suspended pending an investigation. This is common in situations where an investigation into bullying in the workplace needs to be carried out.

The accuser may feel unsafe in the work environment, or it may be determined the investigation can only be fair if the accused is removed whilst it takes place.

However, the accused should also be treated fairly and by following the correct protocols. This means being suspended on full pay and being kept up to date with progress.

3. An Investigation Will Be Conducted

An investigation should be thorough and include any statements from witnesses. It might be possible to download relevant CCTV footage or to retrieve emails or social media comments.

Evidence should be sought without biased behaviour, exploring all sides of the situation.

During the investigation process, it is normal for disciplinary investigation meetings to be held to question the colleagues involved. The accused should be given a fair hearing and adequate time to put forward their version of events. They have the right to bring someone with them for support.

4. An Outcome Will be Decided Upon

Once the investigation has concluded, the employer will decide on what the outcome should be. It might be something that can be handled with a warning or it might need harsher consequences.

Much of this will depend on the bullying, how long it has gone on and other relevant factors. If deemed serious enough, the employee who was bullying may be fired.

It may also be found that no bullying has taken place, or even that the accusation was false.

How to Handle Being Accused of Bullying a Co-worker

It can be incredibly awkward and stressful to find yourself accused of bullying at work. Being accused of bullying can make working with colleagues difficult and can create a toxic atmosphere.

It is important though to keep calm at all times. If you show hostility you will not be doing yourself any favours.

However, If you feel the process may be unfair, take notes of all events and communicate with your employer in writing as much as possible. This will provide evidence you could use to make a tribunal claim if needed.

Show Compliance

Be compliant with the process the employer follows while investigating things. You may be moved to a different department or even suspended, pending the investigation.

Your employer will follow procedures in line with their policies. Kicking up a fuss or refusing to cooperate will only make the situation worse. When a complaint is made, true or otherwise, you need to comply with the action taken.

Gather Evidence For Your Side

Be sure and take time to put together your own side of the situation. This might mean finding evidence, putting together examples of your professionalism and anything else relevant.

You will be invited in to discuss the issue, so being equipped with evidence will help support your perspective on the situation.

Keep Calm and Organised During the Meeting

When you are asked to go in for the disciplinary meeting, make sure you use the opportunity wisely. Be calm and level headed and answer any questions you are asked.

When it is your turn to talk, be confident and make sure you are given time to fully state your case.

There might be a point during the meeting that you realise what you did could be categorised as bullying. If this is the case, it is best to accept this and apologise.

If you are sure you have not bullied a colleague then be consistent with your rebuttal. Either way, make sure you take a trusted person along with you to the meeting. It may be advisable to ask them to take notes of what was said to ensure you have your own accurate record of discussions.

Await the Decision

Once all sides of the story have been aired, there is nothing more to do except wait for a decision. You might be called in for this or you might receive a phone call or email.

It might be that there wasn’t sufficient evidence so no further action will be taken. Or the outcome might be more serious, resulting in a warning or even dismissal if your employer decides you have engaged in gross misconduct.

False Accusations of Bullying

False allegations at work are very unpleasant to be subjected to. Understandably, you will wish to clear your name. You may even have a case for arguing that you are the one being victimised and bullied.

As long as you remain as calm as you can and see the process through, that is all that can be asked of you. If you have still been found guilty after the investigation then you can submit an appeal as part of the disciplinary process.

You may choose, at this point, to cut your losses and seek employment elsewhere. Depending on the situation, you may have grounds to make a claim for constructive dismissal. You will have 3 months minus 1 day to lodge a claim. Contact ACAS to discuss your options.

Should your accuser be found to be lying or over exaggerating the situation, you have grounds to put in a grievance of your own.

If You Have Been Unfairly Dismissed

If you find yourself dismissed after a false allegation, then you have the right to claim for unfair dismissal. First, though, try appealing the decision to fire you. This means formally asking your employer to reconsider – usually through a letter.

Should the decision be the same as the original then your next option is taking your employer to a tribunal. This involves a formal process in which all sides will be considered before the tribunal makes a decision. If your employer is found to have unfairly dismissed you then they may be liable for compensation.

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