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How to combat bullying at work

By Siobhan Harding

Bullying may be characterised as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

‘Persistence’ is often a feature of bullying. For example, ridiculing or demeaning someone or deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism.

There is no one piece of legislation which specifically defines and outlaws bullying at work and therefore it is not possible to bring a direct complaint to an industrial tribunal about bullying.

However bullying and harassment are often terms which are used interchangeably and there are various pieces of legislation which outlaw harassment on certain grounds, for example, sexual harassment.

Harassment as applied to age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, religious belief and/or political opinion and race is defined as “unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating people’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.”

In general terms an employer has a duty to protect their employees from bullying.

It is an implied term of every employment contract that employees have the right to work in a healthy and safe working environment free from harassment, bullying and discrimination.

Under the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare at work of all employees not just in a physical sense but also psychologically.

The Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 (PHO) means it is an offence for someone to follow a course of conduct which they know, or ought to know, amounts to harassment of another person.

The term harassment in this context does not have to be related to an equality issue such as age or sex.

A victim of bullying only has to prove that they suffered alarm, anxiety or distress, they do not have to prove any injury (whether physical or psychiatric).

To succeed in a claim under the PHO, the claimant must be able to show that the bullying occurred on at least two occasions, that it was directed at them and was deliberately intended to cause alarm or distress.

The House of Lords has confirmed that an employer is liable for acts of harassment committed by their employees and can therefore be sued even if no claim is made against the person who actually committed the harassment.

Following developments in case law (Hammond v International Network Services UK (HC) & Conn v Sutherland City Council (CA)), it is no longer as easy to succeed in a bullying claim.

The course of conduct complained of must be oppressive and unreasonable and of such gravity as to be capable of sustaining criminal liability.

A worker who has been the victim of bullying can bring a negligence claim against their employer on the grounds that the employer's failure to protect the worker from bullying has led to the worker suffering personal injury, usually in the form of psychiatric illness.

An employee who has been forced to leave their job because of bullying may be able to claim constructive dismissal. In order to claim constructive dismissal the employee should have worked for their employer for one year.

Employees in this situation should ensure there is no other way of resolving the problem as it is difficult to prove constructive dismissal.

If an employee believes they are being bullied they should consider taking action as quickly as possible and could consider telling the person to stop as their actions are causing distress.

The employee could also get help from a trade union or staff representative; find out if the organisation has a dignity at work policy which addresses bullying and harassment; talk to colleagues to find out if anyone else is suffering or has witnessed what has been happening; keep a diary of all incidents, and follow the employer’s grievance procedure if they decide to take formal action by pursuing an industrial tribunal claim.

Further information on bullying at work is available from your local CAB or from the Labour Relations Agency on 028 9032 1442 or from

Siobhan Harding is an information and policy officer with Citizens Advice

Belfast Telegraph


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