Harassment at work

30 August 2007
Harassment at work

An aggressive or abusive employee, at any level, can create potentially costly problems for an employer. Employment solicitor Sarah Gudgin explains

The problem

I've noticed that my head chef is quite aggressive with other staff and is always shouting and swearing. So far, staff don't seem too bothered by his behaviour, but I'm worried that things might get out of hand.

As an employer, should I be concerned? And what is the legal situation regarding bullying at work?

The law

There is no specific legislation that outlaws workplace bullying, but the law prohibits harassment in certain specific areas and enables employees to bring claims under various guises for both bullying and harassment.

The term "bullying" is often used interchangeably with "harassment", defined in law as "unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating that other person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him/her". It can include insults, personal criticism, demeaning comments and intimidation.

If an employee is bullied or harassed, they may bring a claim under discrimination legislation, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, their contract of employment, unfair dismissal legislation and/or under the common law, as a negligence claim.

An employer will be directly liable for bullying in the workplace, or vicariously liable if the conduct complained of is carried out by an employee in the course of his or her employment. In one recent case an employer had to pay £852,000 in compensation.

Expert advice

Stressful and competitive environments can be breeding grounds for bullying. Employers face real and costly risks if staff use intimidating behaviour and bad language, and research suggests that at least 25% of people who have been bullied leave their jobs.

Bullying also has a detrimental effect on morale, while any resulting bad publicity will not only damage the employer's reputation but make recruitment more difficult.

Employers must ensure that all staff know that bullying is not acceptable. They should make sure that they have a policy on it that is easy to understand and accessible to all staff.

Bad language or behaviour the majority find acceptable, or even amusing, might still offend others. The policy should explain this, and should also set out the procedure for bringing complaints to the employer's attention.

If an employee complains about bullying, the employer should ask whether they would like their complaint to be dealt with informally or formally.

If informal action is preferred, the employee might want his manager to intervene by letting the culprit(s) know how their behaviour is making the employee feel. If the employee wants formal action to be taken, the employer should follow the grievance procedure and should carry out a full investigation.

Check list

  • Make sure you have a clear harassment and bullying policy and give training on the policy.

  • Define the problem. Is there a culture of bullying, or can bad behaviour be attributed to just one or two individuals?

  • Deal promptly with complaints of bullying.

  • Ensure your grievance and disciplinary policies are accessible to all staff.

  • Let your staff know that complaints of bullying or harassment will be dealt with fairly, confidentially and sensitively.


Each year in the UK about 19 million working days are lost to bullying, and as many as half of all stress-related illnesses are a direct result of bullying.


•Sarah Gudgin, Boodle Hatfield, 020 7079 8245 sgudgin@boodlehatfield.com

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