Belfast Telegraph

Bullying in the Workplace

By Adam Tinson

Workplace bullying can have an adverse effect, both for those who suffer from it and for the employers who experience disrupted workplaces.

It is difficult to assess the prevalence of bullying in the workplace, but the Labour Relations Agency deals with over 1,000 enquiries on workplace bullying each year, and it could be assumed that there are many more below the surface.

Bullying can describe a range of behaviours, but a reasonably comprehensive definition might be “where one person or persons engage in unwanted conduct in relation to another person which has the purpose or effect of violating that person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.” The stereotypical image is that of a boss or manager acting as the bully, but it frequently arises between colleagues or from customers and clients. The ramifications include some degree of anxiety or stress for employees (and in extreme cases, physical harm) and lower productivity for employers as a consequence of higher absenteeism and reduced morale.

Workplace bullying has not been directly legislated for, but the issue has in recent years arisen under the ambit of other pieces of legislation. The lack of specific legislation on workplace bullying means that a direct complaint to an industrial tribunal cannot be taken. In general terms, health and safety law requires that all employers safeguard the welfare of their employees and so have a duty of care for their physical and mental well-being. The act of bullying may fall under The Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 which makes non specific harassment a criminal offence. A landmark 2006 case in the House of Lords (Majrowski v Guy's and St Thomas's NHS Trust) confirmed that an employer is liable for acts of harassment committed by her/his employees and can therefore be sued even if no claim is made against the person who actually committed the harassment.

Bullying should be distinguished from harassment which relates specifically to protected characteristics covered by anti- discrimination law, i.e. those acts motivated by prejudice on the grounds of or related to sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marital or civil partnership status, religious belief, political opinion, race, disability and age. It is also an implied term, as derived from case law, of every employment contract that employees have the right to work in a healthy and safe working environment free from harassment, bullying and discrimination. Employers can also be taken to court on the basis of a claim of negligence – if the employer is aware of the bullying or could have reasonably foreseen that it would take place and have a negative impact on the employee in question. This was confirmed by the House of Lords in (Waters v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis). As a matter of last resort, if an employee has been forced out of work, then they may be able to claim ‘constructive dismissal’ if they have worked for their employer for at least a year. As this is very difficult to prove, the employee should ensure that they have exhausted the in-house procedure/grievance procedure (as per the new Labour Relations Agency Code of Practice).

If an employee believes they are being bullied they should consider taking action as quickly as possible and could consider the following:

  • tell the person to stop as their actions are causing you distress – they may be unaware of their actions;
  • if you find it difficult to tell the person yourself you could get someone else, for example, your trade union representative, a manager or someone in personnel, to approach the bully on your behalf;
  • let the union or staff representative know of the problem;
  • find out if the organisation has a dignity at work, harassment or bullying policy;
  • talk to colleagues to find out if anyone else is suffering or witnessed what happened;
  • keep a diary of all incidents – record dates, times, witnesses and your feelings;
  • if you do decide to make a formal complaint follow the employer’s grievance (as per the Labour relations Agency Code of Practice), harassment or bullying procedures.

Further information on bullying at work is available from your local CAB or from the Labour Relations Agency who have a guide on Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace on 028 9032 1442 or from Another useful website is

Adam Tinson is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice.

Belfast Telegraph


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