Workplace bullying or harassment claims

Updated: October 8, 2018

Introduction

According to a recent study carried out by YouGov and the TUC, almost one-third of British workers have been subjected to bullying at work.

One-third of British workers have been bullied at work

36% of people bullied or harassed at work are forced to leave their job as a result. In 72% of cases, the bullying is carried out by a manager.

Although women and employees aged over 40 are the most likely to be affected, the research shows that anyone, in any role, can be subjected to unacceptable conduct from a colleague, manager, contractor or another person at their workplace.

Whatever the circumstances, if you have been bullied, harassed or subjected to unwanted behaviour at work, you may have a claim.

Our specialist solicitors offer a free and confidential consultation to help you understand your options and ask any questions you may have.

To book your initial claim assessment call 0800 612 7456 or complete our callback form here. All calls are handled in the strictest confidence.

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What is “bullying at work”

A wide range of negative behaviour can cause stress and can impact an employee's mental health. What one person may consider a friendly prank or joke may hurt or cause offence to another.

Where one worker's negative behaviour has harmed another member of staff, the conduct may give rise to a claim for compensation.

Although there is no formal legal definition of “bullying”, “harassment” is defined under the Equality Act 2010. Harassment can cover a very wide range of circumstances, from verbal abuse about a worker's race, religion or gender, to gossip, sexual harassment or humiliation.

Bullying in the workplace

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) define workplace bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied”.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) consider that bullying will occur “repeatedly and persistently over time”, although it may also be possible to make a complaint and claim in respect of isolated incidents of harassment.

What forms can bullying take?

In short, workplace bullying can take many, many forms.

Although you may know if you are being bullied, but are not sure what to do about it, many employees may be unaware that a colleague or manager's conduct amounts to bullying.

In some cases, it may be easier to spot when a ADD is being bullied than to recognise when you, yourself, are the target.

Examples of bullying can include:

  • Threats, comments or rumours about your job security or performance
  • Being overlooked for promotion, for a bonus, or for prime tasks and work opportunities
  • Assigning pointless or unpleasant tasks
  • Good performance not being recognised
  • Credit or commission being stolen or reduced
  • Constant, unconstructive criticism
  • Overbearing micro-management or supervision
  • Being overworked or given impossible targets, “setting you up to fail”
  • Withholding important information
  • Being ignored or excluded from formal and informal company events, such as meetings, email threads, chat groups and after-work drinks
  • Public humiliation

Harassment at work

Harassment has a more formal definition than bullying. By law, harassment specifically relates to unwanted behaviour regarding a “protected characteristic”.

Harassment intends to “violate an employee's dignity” or to create a work environment that an employee finds intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive. The Equality Act 2010 sets out specific protected characteristics as:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Sex and sexual orientation
  • Gender reassignment

If you have been harassed by a colleague or manager, either repeatedly or just once, and in respect of one of the above categories, you are likely to have grounds to make an employment claim.

What forms can harassment take?

Like bullying, harassment will take many forms.

Like bullying, harassment will take many forms. There is no single list of everything that counts or does not count as harassment. A manager's conduct may amount to harassment of one employee but not another and could depend on the affected worker's age, gender, race or religion.

Harassment can include:

  • Sexual jokes, advances or touching
  • Asking for sexual favours, displaying or sending offensive photos, videos or SMS messages
  • Standing too close or invading personal space
  • Jokes, references or humiliation about a disability
  • Jokes or comments about sexual orientation or gender
  • Jokes or comments about race or religion
  • Generalisations and stereotypes

A toxic work environment

It is also possible to make a claim even where you were not the specific target of the abuse or offensive comments directly, but you have been affected by them nonetheless.

Whether you were the target or not, another employee or manager's conduct may have made your workplace a stressful, hostile or degrading place to work generally.

If your work environment has become “toxic” as the result of bullying, harassment or other behaviours, your employer has a duty to take action, and you may be entitled to make a claim.

Does the definition matter?

It is not necessary for you to work out what to call what you have experienced. From a legal perspective, your solicitor will help to define whether bullying, harassment or another term best applies.

Starting with a short, confidential consultation, a solicitor will listen to what you have to say and will discuss how best to approach making a claim.

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What are an employer's responsibilities?

All companies owe a duty of care to their staff. This duty requires that both the physical and mental health of workers be protected.

Employers must also take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to identify risks, prevent further harm following an incident and to support the recovery of affected workers.

A wide range of legislation also exists to protect workers, including:

  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 - safeguards workers' welfare generally
  • Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995 (RIDDOR) - requires companies to report injuries and illness, including workplace stress, depression and anxiety
  • Protection from Harassment Act 1997 - gives individuals the right to claim if they have been subjected to a course of conduct which another party knows or ought to know amounts to harassment
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 - requires employers to assess and manage risks, training and health surveillance
  • Equality Act 2010 - specifically defines harassment

The legal requirements imposed on employers extend to bullying and harassment. Employers must take action to ensure workers are protected from offensive and harmful conduct.

Where an employer fails in their duty, and an employee's mental health is affected, the employee may be entitled to make a claim for compensation.

A claim may be possible even if the employer is not directly responsible for the negative conduct, but failed to act when it was reported, or failed to assist an employee in their recovery.

What should employers do to prevent bullying?

Firstly, an employer must have in place a clear and fair policy on bullying and harassment. The policy must also be applied and updated as necessary.

A company's bullying and harassment policy could include:

  • Useful definitions of “unacceptable behaviour”
  • A statement about workers and managers responsibilities to eliminate bullying and other negative conduct
  • A clear and reasonable way for staff to complain to raise concerns
  • Clear and reasonable procedures to handle complaints and to protect the parties involved
  • Information about internal and external options for support, such as nominated HR staff and charity groups
  • An endorsement of the policy from senior management

The HSE recognises that creating a positive company culture that does not tolerate bullying is an ongoing process, and caution that employers must do more than write a policy.

Ongoing efforts to improve and maintain a positive work environment must be made, including:

  • Recognising that harassment and bullying can and does happen in any company
  • Understanding what behaviour is harmful to others and what the consequences can be
  • Discussing these issues and consulting on improvements with all staff, not just HR or management
  • Ensuring HR and management staff are trained to correctly implement agreed anti-bullying policies
  • Ensuring that all staff are training to recognise the signs of destructive behaviour, and to support those affected by it

What can workers do?

Employees should have a range of options available to them to guard themselves and others against bullying and harassment.

The HSE and the UK charity Family Lives recommend the following:

  • Commit to a “zero-tolerance” policy about bullying and harassment. This can include challenging the negative behaviour of others, being prepared to report incidents and act as a witness, and actively supporting staff who have been affected by bullying.
  • If you have witnessed bullying in the workplace, consider approaching less serious examples on an informal basis, always first respecting the wishes of the person who has been bullied
  • If someone comes to you for help, offer what support you can and help the affected person find more formal help if they need it
  • If you have been affected by bullying, you may find it helpful to confide in someone. A friend or family member can give emotional support to help you take things further, and a colleague, manager, HR or union representative will be able to give you more specific support at work.
  • Make a note of people who witnessed an incident, as other witness accounts can be useful when making a formal grievance or claim.
  • It may also be helpful to log what has happened and how made you feel. The charity Family Lives suggest that keeping a journal or diary can be cathartic, helping with the recovery process, but it can also provide very valuable evidence later if you do decide to make a claim. Individual events may each seem “trivial” on their own, and it is only when they are recorded and presented all together that the extent of a campaign of bullying is clear.

It may not be easy to speak out

It is not always easy to challenge or speak out against negative conduct. This is particularly true if you are the target.

You are under no obligation whatsoever to take things further

Speaking to an independent solicitor on an entirely confidential basis can help you explore your options, and decide what to do. You are under no obligation whatsoever to take things further if you would prefer not to, and the phone consultation is free.

Call Quittance on 0800 612 7456 to speak to a specialist today. Your calls are handled in strict confidence.

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Are you eligible to claim compensation?

If you have been bullied at work, harassed at work or subjected to unwanted conduct, you may be eligible for compensation.

The key question that a solicitor will ask is “Were you harmed or offended by a manager or colleague's conduct?” If you consider the behaviour to be bullying or harassment, the answer is probably “Yes.”

Bullying and harassment can take many forms. If you are unsure whether what you have experienced would be considered harassment or bullying,

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How does making a claim for bullying or harassment work?

Your options will vary partly on how seriously you have been affected, and what action you would prefer to take. The routes include:

  • Informal action
  • A formal complaint or grievance
  • Mediation
  • An employment tribunal
  • A personal injury claim

Informal action

If you feel that the offensive conduct was unintentional or relatively minor, you may decide to take informal action. This could involve you, with the support of a colleague or manager, speaking to the person responsible for the behaviour.

The person responsible may not be aware of the harm they have caused, or that their actions could cause offence. An informal approach can often be the easiest option and gives the perpetrator an opportunity to change and improve their conduct.

Formal complaint or grievance

If the informal approach has been tried and failed, if the conduct is sufficiently serious, or if you don't feel comfortable handling the issue informally, you can make a formal complaint.

Your company should have a grievance process in place that sets out how a complaint will be handled and what action could be taken. The benefits of the formal approach include that everything will be documented, that you will have access to HR support and that formal action will be taken to resolve the issue once your complaint is upheld.

Mediation

In some cases, mediation by a neutral third party, such as ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), can help to resolve difficult issues of bullying or harassment involving management, or cases that are not obviously covered by a company's complaints or anti-bullying procedures.

Mediation can ensure that your side is fairly heard by a trained, neutral mediator. It may also be an appropriate route if you are dissatisfied with how a complaint was handled internally, whether formal or informal, by your manager or department.

Employment tribunal

An employment tribunal is often the best course of action if an incident of negative behaviour or a long-running course of conduct has had a serious impact on your life and work.

If you have been forced to leave your job as a direct or indirect result of the harassment, you may have grounds to make a claim for “constructive dismissal”. If the harassment applies to a protected characteristic as set out in the Equality Act 2010, such as race, religion, gender or age, you may be able to claim for “harassment” or discrimination. Your solicitor may aAlternatively suggest a claim for whistleblowing if you have been bullied because you complained about the unfair treatment of a colleague.

A solicitor will confirm whether a tribunal is the best course, and will explain in detail how the legal process works.

Personal injury claim

If the psychiatric harm you have experienced has been diagnosed by a medical professional, you may be entitled to claim injury compensation. This can be particularly important if the experience has made it difficult to continue working generally or has affected your quality of life.

Even if you haven't yet been diagnosed, or even seen a doctor, you can still contact a solicitor, who will help you get a formal diagnosis in support of your claim.

Examples of diagnoses that may give rise to a claim include:

  • Psychiatric or psychological damage that has affected your ability to work, or has affected your life and relationships
  • Where the harm is likely to be difficult to treat or the prognosis for recovery is poor
  • Post-traumatic stress (PTS), whether the effects are permanent and widespread, or relatively short-lived and recovery is expected with 1-2 years

Awards for compensation for these injuries can range from several thousand pounds where the injury was short-lived, to over £90,000 in cases of severe, long-term post-traumatic stress.

You have the choice

Whatever you choose to do, your solicitor will keep you informed and updated at every stage. After speaking to a solicitor, you may decide to focus on your recovery and then proceed with a claim at a later stage.

However, and especially if the bullying or harassment is still ongoing, seeking advice and support as soon as you feel able to is strongly recommended.

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Workplace bullying and harassment frequently asked questions

Could I lose my job if I make a claim?

By law, an employer cannot discriminate against you for making a claim for compensation, or for taking them to an employment tribunal. This includes demoting you, firing you or putting you under pressure to leave “voluntarily”.

Under section 27 of the Equality Act 2010, bringing a discrimination claim against an employer is a “protected act”. This means that future employers cannot lawfully reject an application if a candidate sued a previous company for discrimination.

You have the right to work in a positive work environment, free from bullying, harassment and any other unwanted conduct. If you have raised a complaint after experiencing one of these issues, and your future employment has been threatened, you may have ground for a claim for “constructive dismissal”.

Can I still claim if I have joined in bullying or laughed at a joke?

Some workers are reluctant to make a claim if they think they are partly to blame for a colleague's conduct, or they think they may have encouraged the negative behaviour.

Sexual harassment is a common example of where the affected party may be reluctant to come forward because they have flirted with a colleague in the past, or simply have laughed off or ignored a colleague's unwanted advances.

In other cases, a course of conduct has gone on for so long, or was even ongoing before an employee started, that they are afraid to say anything because “it's just the way things are”.

what matters is what you feel and how the conduct has affected you

In both of these examples, what matters is what you feel and how the conduct has affected you. You know better than a third party whether a ADD has “crossed a line”, whether a comment is offensive or whether certain practices are creating a toxic work environment.

Get advice and support today

Problems in the workplace rarely go away on their own. If workers stay silent and negative behaviour is unchecked, the situation can often get worse.

Whatever the circumstances, if you believe you are or may be being bullied or harassed, the best course of action is to first speak to someone and get support. If you believe the same is happening to someone else, offer them your support.

For a free, confidential consultation with a specialist solicitor, call Quittance on 0800 612 7456 or complete our callback form here. Calls are handled in strict confidence and there is no obligation whatsoever to proceed with a claim if you do not wish to.

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Our nationwide network of solicitors take on all types of road accident claims and have a wealth of experience in fast track, complex and serious injury claims. Our lawyers are selected for their winning track record and their professionalism.

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About the author

With over 20 years' experience in the law, Jenny has spent the last decade specialising in personal injury, with a particular focus on industrial disease cases.

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