Bullying in the workplace is toxic behaviour which can damage workplace harmony and productivity. This toxic behaviour can have a profound impact upon victims mental health, and cause legal issues for employers who fail to protect their staff from bullying behaviours.
Its not always clear what bullying in the workplace looks like, it can be subtle and insidious. We’ll look at examples of bullying at work, and help you understand legal protections, and offer advice on how victims should deal with being bullied.
Workplace Bullying Defined
Workplace bullying happens when an employee is made to feel uncomfortable or harassed. It might take the form of verbal insults, inappropriate rumours or physical actions. The severity can vary from subtle bullying to obvious harassment.
The workplace environment thrives on mutual respect and compassion. When this is not cultivated, the environment can become toxic. Toxicity among staff impacts the quality and output of work being produced. It can also lead to mental health struggles and feelings of inadequacy and self loathing.
A segmented workforce will not be conducive to a happy and healthy environment. This in turn will have a detrimental effect on tasks, deadlines, overall attitudes to work and will result in higher staff absence rates due to work related stress.
Bullying at Work Examples
Bullying at work can take many forms. Some employees may not realise their behaviour in the workplace constitutes bullying. This is why awareness is vital so that steps can be taken to stamp out such behaviours.
Here’s some key examples of what bullying in the workplace can look like:-
Bullying isn’t always face to face and sometimes happens when digital tools are misused. Cyberbullying in the workplace can take place via text messages, social media, emails, and other instant messaging apps.
With the increase in working from home, use of digitial communication platforms has become more prevalent, and employers must be aware of the possibility of cyberbullying via these channels.
Cyberbullying can cause a worker to be upset, scared, humiliated or threatened. Posting photos that embarrass an employee is an example of cyberbullying. This is more so if the photo was used without the person’s permission.
Sending abusive comments or spreading malicious rumours via social media should also be considered bullying behaviour. This type of behaviour is still workplace bullying if it took place outside working hours.
2. Upward Bullying
Upward bullying is also known as reverse bullying. This lesser known type of harassment in the workplace occurs when a member of senior staff is bullied by their employees.
We often assume the boss is the one who will bully or belittle their staff but it is not always the case. Upward bullying is on the rise but is often not spoken about out of fear or affecting reputation.
When staff mistreat their more senior members of staff, this is upward bullying. An upward bully may be disrespectful to their management. They might belittle them or ignore the tasks they have been given to do. Spreading rumours to undermine their authority, or submitting malicious grievances is also common.
Although not as prevalent as other forms of bullying, when it happens the consequences can be severe. Such bullying can change workplace dynamics by failing to respect those more senior members. This can lead to increased absenteeism and a lack of productivity when at work.
3. Spreading Rumours & Gossip
It might not seem to be serious misconduct, but spreading rumours and gossip about an co-worker is a form of bullying. Once rumours begin to circulate in a work environment, things can quickly escalate and create disharmony within the team.
Often, rumours made up or exaggerated for effect. This can be very distressing for the subject of the workplace gossip. It’s usually done to try and undermine someone or to make them feel uncomfortable.
Spreading rumours in the workplace can create a negative atmosphere. It can cause segregation which then impacts production. Such behaviours can lead to a toxic work culture where the victim feels excluded from the team.
4. Excluding or Ignoring Co Workers
A big part of a positive working environment is feeling part of a team. Imagine then the effect being excluded or ignored by co workers would have on an employee’s mental health? When someone is excluded or ignored by their peers, this constitutes workplace bullying.
This exclusion can happen both at the workplace or within the wider community at social events. A staff member who is repeatedly uninvited to social occasions or not spoken to in the office will feel excluded.
No one likes to feel disliked or unvalued and someone who is constantly ignored will feel this way. It can cause a lack of respect between employees which can lead to poor performance and absenteeism.
This type of bullying behaviour can be very challenging to address because of its passive nature.
5. Swearing & Aggressive Language
Any workplace conduct that makes another person feel uncomfortable or intimidated is regarded as bullying behaviour.
That means swearing at work or using aggressive language can constitute bullying. Many employers have strict policies about use of bad or aggressive language at work. This is because swearing and aggressive language can have varying effects on individual staff members.
There are many dynamics to verbal abuse. It can include threatening, gaslighting, insulting, humiliating and degrading someone.
Such behaviours at work can create a hostile environment and a highly stressed team atmosphere. It may also affect communication between staff and can even lead to staff feeling fearful at work.
6. Threats of Physical Violence or Assault
One of the more obvious forms of workplace bullying is when physical violence occurs is threatened or an employee is assaulted at work. This will, in many cases, be escalated beyond management as a crime has been committed.
It can be in the form of implied behaviour such as threatening to hurt someone, or throwing objects around or kicking / hitting things like walls and doors in a fit of rage.
All workers have the right to a safe working environment. Threatening behaviour should never be tolerated in any form.
7. Undermining Co Workers
A more subtle, but serious type of bullying is when workers are undermined. This type of behaviour can quickly manifest into other forms of bullying. It will impact negatively on the person being undermined and lead to them feeling worthless and anxious.
Undermining behaviours manifest in a variety of ways and can be hard to prove. The instigator might withhold information which affects the quality of work being produced. Or they might take their co worker’s idea and claim it as their own. In most cases, it will be a form of manipulation to make a person look bad.
Sometimes the victim may be given ridiculous workloads so they look and feel incapable. This type of behaviour will impact the entire team. It will affect morale and cause a toxic environment which will lead to resentment.
8. Inappropriate or Offensive Jokes
Everyone enjoys a laugh and a giggle at work. It keeps morale high. However, when the jokes become inappropriate or offensive, the opposite can happen. Some jokes may make someone feel harassed or singled out. This, in turn, leads to them feeling discriminated against.
A joke becomes inappropriate when it makes someone feel uncomfortable or discriminated against. Such jokes should be regarded as unprofessional as they can damage reputations.
Such bullying can result in someone being subject to discrimination in the workplace. This might be due to jokes being made about their sexuality, religious beliefs or ethnicity.
Making jokes about protected characteristics such as these may be considered harassment which is prohibited by the Equality Act 2010. Such conduct can result in legal action being taken against the employer if the jokes are allowed to continue.
Anyone found to be telling and encouraging such offensive jokes can find themselves subject to a disciplinary hearing.
9. Invasion of Privacy
When an employee has their privacy invaded, this can be an act of bullying. The intent behind such behaviour will usually be to make someone feel uncomfortable. Someone who has their privacy intruded on may feel hurt, distrust and humiliated.
Anything considered private that is then seen or used by others can be considered an invasion of privacy. This can include screen recordings of personal conversations or audio recordings. It might involve hacking into someone’s email or social media account. A person might have their personal belongings or space invaded too.
This type of behaviour is problematic in the workplace. It will bring up feelings of distrust, embarrassment and possibly reliving past traumatic events. Any type of emotional distress will create barriers in the environment.
10. Unrealistic Workload or Deadlines
Deliberately setting someone up to fail at work is a form of bullying. When someone is given unrealistic workloads and deadlines, they will become stressed. Stress in the workplace is the number one reason for sick leave.
When an employee is deliberately overworked, they will become emotionally distressed. No one likes to feel like a failure in life. It can affect confidence, self belief and future promotions. Someone who deliberately puts this stress onto another is a bully.
When someone is victimised and given such unrealistic goals, they should speak to management. It is a form of manipulation with the hope of causing distress. Stress can have huge implications on our overall well being.
Bullying via passive aggression can be very subtle and sometimes only noticeable to the victim. The perpetrator will often use the individual’s insecurities as a way to belittle them.
Someone who chooses to be passive aggressive towards someone will thrive on their misery. It may not be picked up on by anyone else, leading to the victim feeling isolated. It can take the form of backhanded compliments, giving someone the silent treatment or using sarcasm as a form of communication.
Tensions often build when passive aggression is used at work. It can lead to a person feeling undervalued and no longer part of a team.
When a senior member of staff uses their power to manipulate an employee, this is considered downward bullying. They might withhold information that the person needs to carry out a task properly. Or they might make threats about their position within the company.
Mocking someone’s appearance or performance can be a feature of this type of bullying. They might be portrayed as unable to meet their deadlines which will affect their self esteem. It will also impact the wider workforce who may feel resentment.
Such behaviour should never be tolerated and should be taken to the management team. Any signs of discriminatory behaviour can have serious consequences.
Subtle Signs of Bullying at Work
What if you have been accused of bullying at work and you feel wrongly accused? Firstly, you need to understand that bullying takes many forms demonstrated above. Some forms of bullying are very subtle and can happen unintentionally.
Below are some examples of bullying that are less obvious but are serious nonetheless:-
- Isolating someone in and out of the workplace.
- Spreading gossip about a person.
- Withholding key information required to complete tasks.
- Making snide comments or backhanded compliments.
- Increasing someone’s workload as a means to make them fail.
- Displaying discriminatory behaviour.
- Taking an employee’s responsibilities away for no good reason or explanation.
- Constant criticism which is not constructive.
If you feel you have not been carrying out subtle bullying of any form then you must speak up. However, it is worth remembering that bullying can look different for everyone and no one should feel uncomfortable at work.
Impact of Bullying & Harassment
Bullying in the workplace can have a detrimental effect on the victims personal life as well as their work life and performance.
The distress caused can spill over into their personal life as it can be hard to switch off from the anxiety caused by the situation.
Increased Stress Levels
Workplace bullying increases stress levels. When a job is already stressful, this can become a dangerous problem.
Stress can cause health issues such as high blood pressure, palpitations, panic attacks and insomnia. Work related stress can lead to being signed off work for prolonged periods and is detrimental to productivity.
Being a victim of bullying can lead to feeling like an outsider and a failure. It can make turning up to work daunting and lead to feelings of isolation.
When we are down on ourselves we tend to lack motivation and get stuck in this relentless cycle. Employees may begin to feel they cannot do the job any longer.
There is no getting away from the fact that being bullied can lead to mental health problems. It can lead to feeling anxious or depressed and, in some cases, even thoughts of self harm.
This is why employers should be striving to provide a zero tolerance bullying culture. Mental health sick leave for work related reasons affects business profitability and efficiency.
It is also a sign an employer is not meeting their duty of care to protect staff from work related stress. This can leave a business open to employment tribunal claims from staff who ended up unable to work due to mental health issues, or felt they had no alternative but to resign.
A toxic workplace will likely mean that staff turnover is high. This will affect ongoing projects and working relationships.
Looking at the bigger picture, it can also have a detrimental effect on the company’s reputation.
Staff who are being bullied may feel unable to face work at times. This will lead to sick days being taken which can also put more strain on other employees through increased workload.
In the long term, this can impact productivity as output slows down and deadlines are missed.
It can negatively affect company dynamics when bullying is prevalent. Someone being constantly undermined may be increasingly excluded.
This can lead to resentment between employees and the creation of an unpleasant and toxic working environment. This can impact the entire workforce.
The Law & Workplace Bullying
There are many legal protections in place for employees who are victims of bullying at work. Employers should be aware of their responsibilities when it comes to staff welfare.
Failing to meet legal obligations and protect staff who are being bullied or harassed at work can be costly for a business. It’s vital that employers and employees understand relevant laws relating to bullying at work.
Health & Safety at Work Act 1975
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 places a responsibility on employers to make sure their staff are safe in the workplace and that the environment does not pose a risk to their health.
This obligation extends to protecting mental health from the often harmful effects of bullying at work.
The Equality Act 2010
There are several sections of The Equality Act 2010 which relate directly to bullying at work. These sections bring the protected characteristics to our attention and how these should be considered at all times.
- Section 26, harassment: Employees should be free from harassment based on age, disability, gender, marriage, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion, and sexual preferences.
- Section 27, victimisation: This protects employees during any investigation into allegations they have made. This means they cannot be treated unfairly due to raising a grievance or intending to raise a grievance about being bullied at work.
What to Do if You’re Being Bullied in the Workplace
Being bullied in any form can be a distressing and worrying time. It can affect mental health, general health and work relationships. If you are a victim of any behaviour that falls under bullying, you should follow the steps below.
- Read relevant company policies such as advice on raising a grievance and expected behaviours from all staff members. Arming yourself with this information will help you understand how to frame your concerns.
- Try to raise the issue informally, to begin with. This will often have much quicker results. Sometimes a quick chat with managers, or some mediation will be enough to stop unwanted behaviours.
- Raise a formal grievance if an informal approach didn’t change the situation. HR will be able to provide you with the information needed for this.
- The employer must conduct an investigation. They are obligated to do so, and might need to interview both the victim and the perpetrator. If the situation is serious, they may suspend the accused employee pending investigation.
- The employer will then determine if further action is required. They should remember their duty of care responsibilities to all parties involved in the complaint throughout this process.
Legal Recourse if Your Employer Fails to Act
If an investigation fails to stop the bullying or fails to see it as bullying, there is more you can do. Firstly, you can appeal the result and ask your employer to consider the situation again. They have to agree to this.
Failing this, employees can take their employer to a tribunal for which they may get compensation. They may even resign and make a claim of constructive dismissal.
Where to Go for Help
The following organisations have information related to bullying at work and bringing Employment Tribunal claims. Both ACAS and Citizens Advice can offer you free legal advice about your situation.
- UK Government – advice on bullying and harrassment at work
- Acas’ advice on bullying at work and what to do about it.
- Citizens Advice – Bullying and Harassment at Work.