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What is Bullying at Work?

23 Aug 2021

Bullying at work encompasses any behaviour from an individual or group that’s unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable, intimidated, or offended. The behaviour itself can take any of a number of forms. Legally, the definition of bullying rests on the impact that the behaviour has on you and your emotional wellbeing rather than the actions that caused it.

What constitutes bullying in the workplace?

A wide range of actions can result in you feeling distressed at work and therefore constitute bullying in the workplace. Bullying at work could, for example, entail:

  • Exclusion from social activities or training events
  • The spreading of malicious rumours
  • Making hurtful remarks about someone, whether publicly or on a one-to-one basis
  • Unfair allocation of workload from managers
  • Treatment that unjustly calls into question your intellect or abilities

This list is by no means exhaustive, nor could a comprehensive set of bullying behaviours be produced. To reiterate, workplace bullying is defined by the emotional response it produces and the underlying reason behind it, not the action itself.

In certain cases, what may seem like bullying can amount to an act of discrimination. When the behaviour relates to an individual’s age, sex, or a disability, it is not bullying, but harassment. If you feel like you may be experiencing this, then consult our resource on workplace harassment.

It is also worth noting that bullying in the workplace can take place through a variety of media. Whether the action is carried out by means of a phone call, text, email, letter, or face-to-face, it represents a form of bullying if it causes distress to the recipient.

Relational bullying at work

Relational bullying at work refers to bullying that is social in nature. Some of the actions listed above constitute relational bullying, such as being excluded from social activities. Sociologists make an important distinction here between relational and cyberbullying: whilst both behaviours are social, the former is an offline behaviour whilst the latter takes place in an electronic environment.

In light of this, cyberbullying is usually easy to trace and can be dealt with effectively. Relational bullying, on the other hand, can be more difficult to handle, as it often occurs in situations where there are no other parties present or the perpetrator conceals their behaviour. In such cases, it is commonly one person’s word against another’s, meaning that it can be hard to reach a resolution.

Nonetheless, the effects of relational bullying can be debilitating. It can undermine an individual’s confidence in social situations and leave them lacking in self-esteem. The experience of relational bullying can be so stressful that it begins to have more physical effects on the recipient, lowering energy levels and even inducing symptoms such as insomnia and an upset stomach.

In cases where rumours spread to management unchecked, this type of bullying can also have an impact on an individual’s professional life. If the gossip about an individual reaches their managers and is never challenged, they could be overlooked when it comes to promotions. In this way, the aftereffects of relational bullying may hinder the recipient’s career progression.

How to report workplace bullying

The official advice on how to report workplace bullying states that employees should initially seek an informal means of dealing with the problem. You may find that the situation can be resolved by simply speaking to the perpetrator and telling them how their behaviour is affecting you. Most reasonable adults would respond to such an entreaty in a positive way.

Should you find that the bully is unwilling to change their behaviour, you then have a robust case to take to report to your manager, HR, or a trade union representative – the most appropriate person to speak to will vary depending on your industry and place of work.

Consult our resource on how to deal with bullying at work for a detailed breakdown of this process or get in touch to speak directly to our employment lawyers.

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Written by Jayne Harrison

Jayne joined Richard Nelson LLP in 2018 as a Partner and manages the firm's employment law services. After training at a top 100 law firm, Jayne spent the last 13 years at Chattertons and then Cleggs Solicitors. She represents employees and professionals in regulated industries.

Read more about Jayne Harrison.

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