Bullying and harassment at work


boss bully


What is bullying?

ACAS defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. Bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people. It may be obvious or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.”

What is harassment?

Under section 26 of the Equality Act 2010, harassment is a prohibited act of discrimination and is defined as unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of people in the workplace or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. To be protected under the Equality Act 2010, the harassment must be related to a protected characteristic. Even if the harassment does not relate to a protected characteristic, you are protected by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.


Sexual Harassment

What to do if you think you are being sexually harassed at work


Resources available

How to write a grievance that gets you what you want

How to write a grievance about bullying and harassment at work

How to write a grievance about changes to your employment contract

How to write a grievance about discrimination at work

How to write a grievance about the behaviour of a colleague, manager or supervisor

How to write a grievance about unauthorised deductions from your wages or salary

Surviving a workplace suspension

How to fight dismissal on Probation

How to survive a criminal charge, conviction or caution at work

Social Media and Unfair Dismissal

Surviving a disciplinary investigation at work

Surviving Capability and Performance Management

The Disciplinary Hearing

Alcohol and Drugs at work




Complaining about bullying and harassment

Get a copy of your employer’s policy on bullying and harassment. It could be called “Dignity at work”, or “Bullying and Harassment”. If your employer does not have a policy, then check out the resources listed below under “Best of the web”. If this doesn’t work and the behaviour continues you should consider making a claim in the Employment Tribunal.


The Law on Bullying and Harassment

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Bullying and harassment are significant causes of stress at work. Under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997(PHA 1997) it is unlawful to “pursue a course of conduct” that the perpetrator knows, or ought to know would amount to harassment.

Harassment is not formally defined in the PHA 1997 but does include oppressive and unreasonable behaviour, calculated to cause alarm or distress. This Act was originally intended as an anti-stalking measure. S1 of the PHA 1997 creates two classes of criminal offence. The lesser offence is liable to summary conviction, whilst the offence of harassment can also constitute an offence under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 s.24(2).   S3 provides that any offence under S1 may be the subject of a civil claim by the affected person.

You can bring a claim under this Act up to 6 years after the bullying rather than the 3 months allowed for unfair/constructive dismissal and under anti-discrimination law.

The Equality Act 2010

S40 of the Equality Act 2010 makes harassment of employees and job applicants unlawful. It says that an employer must not harass employees and job applicants, or allow third parties to harass employees and job applicants. An employer must also “take such steps as would have been reasonably practicable to prevent the third party from doing so”.

Implied contract terms

Your employment contract contains a common law duty of care, which includes a duty to prevent ill treatment and bullying, as a separate right to the statutory rules.

In Dickens v O2 PLC [2008] workplace stress triggered Ms Dickens disability and O2 was held to be liable. The Court of Appeal said that in cases of severe stress it is not enough for an employer to provide access to a confidential counselling helpline or to refer an employee to an occupational health professional. Ms Dickins, was employed as a secretary for O2. She had a good work record and had progressed to the position of regulatory finance manager. Ms Dickins told O2 on a number of occasions that she needed help with her work but they ignored her.  At the end of their February 2002 audit, she was exhausted. In March, she asked for a less stressful job and was told to hold on for 3 months. During a meeting she asked to go on sabbatical leave and told her manager that she couldn’t take any more. Nothing was done.  On 30 May, she repeated her request for a sabbatical and told her manager again, that she couldn’t take any more. At this point she was referred to occupational health. She became very ill soon after this, and was signed off work for anxiety and depression. She eventually left work permanently in November 2003.

Ms Dickins sued O2 successfully in the County Court for psychiatric injury negligently caused by excessive stress and was awarded damages in excess of £100,000. O2 appealed to the Court of Appeal arguing that the County Court Judge had misinterpreted the law. O2 said they were not liable because it was not reasonably foreseeable that Ms Dickens would suffer injury to her health from stress at work. They also said that they could not be liable because they had offered Ms Dickens access to a confidential counselling advice service. The Court of appeal disagreed with O2. The Court said that there was a “reasonably foreseeable risk of harm” to Ms Dickens. Ms Dickens had expressed and exhibited “signs of impending harm to health”. The signs were plain enough for O2 to have realised that Ms Dickens would “go over the edge” due to stress, and suffer an “injury to health” unless O2 took appropriate action to alleviate the stress. The Court also said that providing access to a counselling service is only an advantage where employees are unwilling to admit to their own line manager that they are unable to cope. In a case such as this, where the employee admits the problem and describes the severe symptoms she is having, providing access to counselling is not enough. O2 should have intervened and sent her home on full pay pending investigation by occupational health.

Best of the web

HSE on Bullying and Harassment at Work

ACAS – Bullying and harassment at work; A guide for employees

Raising a grievance at work

GOV.UK – Workplace bullying and harassment

CAB – Discrimination at work; bullying and harassment

WorkSmart – Harassment and bullying

Bullying UK – Bullying at work

The Guardian – Bullying at work, your legal rights

The Independent – What to do if you’re being bullied at work 

UNISON – Tackling bullying at work

5 ways bullying can creep into organisations



This resource is published by Employee Rescue Limited. Please note that the information and any commentary on the law contained herein is provided free of charge for information purposes only. The information and commentary does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice. Employee Rescue accepts no responsibility for any loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the material contained in this update. Further specialist advice should be taken before relying on the contents of this summary. No part of this summary may be used, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of Employee Rescue Ltd.


Case Study

In the Scottish case of Collins v First Quench Retailing Ltd [2003], Ms Jacqueline Collins was awarded £179,000 from her employers when the off-license she managed was robbed. Ms Collins had been the manager of Victoria Wine, run by First Quench Retailing, for about ten years. When Mrs Collins started in the shop she had been concerned about security and raised this with management. Since 1977 there had been 13 reported crimes at the shop, including five thefts, one minor assault, one serious assault and one assault with intent to rob. There were two armed robberies in 1994 and four... Read More
Ms Jacqueline Collins was awarded £179,000 from her employers when the off-license she managed was robbed.Collins v First Quench Retailing Ltd
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