Bullying and harassment at work

On this page we explain what bullying and harassment are, your right not to be treated like this at work, and what you can do about it if you are.

Bullying and harassment often go together, but legally they are slightly different. Bullying doesn't have a legal definition but we all understand what it means. It is intimidating or insulting behaviour, intended to undermine or humiliate you. It is often an abuse of power.

The legal meaning of harassment is where you suffer unlawful discrimination (for example because of your race or sex), through behaviour that is offensive, intimidating or hostile, and where the behaviour is intended to or has the effect of humiliating you. Often behaviour will be both bullying and harassment, but not always.

"When the new manager started, he was horrible. He shouted a lot and banged his fist on the furniture to get attention. He told me off for the least thing and said I needed to speed up or my job was at risk, although I'd had good performance reviews in the past. At first I wondered if it was because I was black. After a few weeks I realised he behaved like this to everyone and we were all frightened of his bullying ways. I felt so stressed that I took a week off work with anxiety. I'd never done this before. At about the same time one of my colleagues did too. I talked it over with her when she was back, and we had a look at the grievance procedure. Then we raised his behaviour informally with his line manager. She investigated, and shortly afterwards he was moved to another department." Marion, Swansea

Marion’s case is an example of bullying, but not harassment, as her new manager abused his power and behaved like this to everyone.

"I am a single parent of a 6 year old who has severe asthma. When it's bad he has to take time off school. Sometimes the school phones and asks me to collect him. When he has a bad attack I have to take him to Accident and Emergency. My work has been saying that because I have to take time off I'm rubbish at my job, and they're going to discipline me over my attendance. I get distressed about how they talk to me, and I'm frightened I'm going to lose my job because of my son's illness." Cara, Manchester

In Cara’s case, her child has a disability and she is suffering intimidating and offensive behaviour because of her child’s disability. This means the employer’s behaviour is harassment, a particular kind of unlawful discrimination.

Sometimes bullying is more ‘low level’ and you’re not sure if it really amounts to bullying. Perhaps you are the only one being told you are a few minutes late for work while others appear to get away with the same behaviour s? Or your employer makes occasional personal comments about your appearance that aren’t genuinely related to your work’s dress code?

If what your employer is doing is undermining, unwarranted or offensive then it amounts to an abuse of power and is bullying. The degree of bullying may be ‘low level’ but it’s still bullying. The question then is whether the bullying is too low level to justify raising it with them. You need to think about whether the problem is serious enough for you to want to resolve it as a grievance, either informally or formally. See  How to sort out problems at work informally and Using a grievance procedure to deal with problems at work formally.

An employee who is late for work is always going to have difficulty alleging bullying or unfair criticism, even at a low level, because the law often treats lateness for work, at worst, as theft of an employer's time or as a breach by the employee of the terms of their contract. Different employees in the same organisation may meet different responses to lateness from their employer, quite legitimately. So a train driver has to be punctual for the timetable. A receptionist needs to be there when the phones open. A secretary or researcher might be allowed to make up the work by staying late. 

An employer is not likely to sympathise with a complaint along the lines of ‘Everyone else is late. Why am I the only one to get picked on?’ It is possible the employer thinks the person who is 'picked on' has wider performance issues than other people. But, if you have a protected characteristic that causes or accounts for your lateness, or the differential treatment becomes very marked, you may want to consider raising a grievance. See Using a grievance procedure to deal with problems at work formally.

Need more information?

For more help see Bullying and discrimination at work. We have hand-picked the best accurate information available about discrimination law in England and Wales available anywhere on the web, so that you don't have to.

June 2023

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