Bullying and Harassment


Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, which amounts to an abuse of power or authority, which attempts to undermine an individual or individuals and which may cause them to suffer stress.

There are many ways bullying can be conducted, many types of bullying, and many definitions of bullying.

Bullying can be obvious i.e. physical and direct, or more subtle and indirect. Bullying can happen to anyone, no matter what stature.

Bullying and the Law

Bullying itself is not against the law, although harassment is under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. In many cases of bullying, an amicable settlement is made before legal advice is sought.
There are however many work related incidents of bullying and harassment where it may be necessary to take legal advice from an experienced Employment Law Solicitor.
In more serious cases (including those involving children at school), bullying can often involve physical harm or theft, which are matters for the law and it would be advisable to contact the police.
What defines a case of bullying?

Bullying is identified if the recipient:

  • Believes behaviour towards them is unwelcome, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting.
  • Feels frightened, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable.
  • Has their self-confidence knocked, possibly causing them to suffer ill health and mental distress.
  • Is the subject of persistent and even aggressive and physical behaviour

Examples of bullying:

  • Spreading rumours, teasing, making a person the subject of jokes, or ridiculing someone in public (online or in person) 
  • Ignoring or excluding someone from group activities or social events. 
  • Using physical violence, professional or personal insults, shouting, swearing, making aggressive gestures. 
  • Unnecessarily picking fault and constantly undervaluing someone or denying them opportunities.
  • Setting unfeasible deadlines or removing areas of responsibility without good reason (commonly in workplace).
  • Using a position of seniority to undermine and disregard valid suggestions, whether at a personal level or in the workplace. 
  • Making unjustified accusations or complaints with the intent of causing distress  to another person.

The Bully

Bullies can be from any walk of life and be of any race or gender so it is inaccurate to draw up a stereotype or profile of a bully. However, being able to identify bullying behaviour may help you to recognise when it is actually happening.

Bullying behaviour – How might the bully behave?

The following signs are seen in different areas of day to day life, for example schools, work place or just within friendship groups:

  • Repeatedly shouting or swearing in public or private
  • Public humiliation 
  • Persistent criticism
  • Constantly undervaluing effort 
  • Personal insults and name calling
  • Persecution through fear or threats 
  • Dispensing unfair punishment with no warning
  • Increasing responsibility whilst decreasing authority 
  • Being overruled, ignored, or excluded 
  • Setting individuals up to fail
  • Setting inconceivable tasks 
  • Setting unrealistic deadlines 
  • Removing areas of responsibility and imposing menial tasks
  • Deliberately sabotaging or impeding work performance
  • Constantly changing guidelines
  • Withholding information

Symptoms of a bully victim

If someone is being bullied they are likely to be showing signs of unrest as bullying can often have an adverse affect on the health of a victim.
Symptoms to look out for:

  • headaches
  • nausea 
  • raised blood pressure 
  • sleeplessness
  • loss of appetite 
  • fatigue
  • ulcers 
  • anxiety
  • depression 
  • tearfulness 
  • irritability 
  • becoming withdrawn
  • becoming aggressive 
  • increased consumption of tobacco, alcohol or drugs
  • contemplation of suicide

Many of these symptoms mirror those of a person suffering from long term stress.

Bullying at work and Health and Safety Legislation

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the physical & mental health, safety and welfare at work of their employees.
The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 obliges employers to assess the risks to health & safety to which their employees are exposed while at work, so that they can take appropriate preventative and protective measures. This applies to both physical and mental health.
Health & safety legislation therefore gives employers or health and safety representatives the legal right to investigate causes of stress such as bullying and stress related ill-health in the workplace.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued guidance on stress which includes references to bullying.
The HSE states that to reduce stress, employers should have effective systems in place to deal with inter-personal conflict, bullying and racial or sexual harassment. These systems should include an official grievance procedure to enable a thorough investigation of complaints.

Bullying in School

If you suspect or know your child is the victim of bullying firstly talk to your child and gather as much information as possible. You should then make an appointment to see your child’s teacher. At this meeting you need to find out what the schools policy is on bullying and ask for this in writing; find out what they intend to do next and how they are going to deal with your complaint.
If you are not satisfied with the teacher’s response, the next step is to ask to the school’s head teacher
If you feel your complaint has still not been dealt with satisfactory you could take it further by contacting the governing body of the school and/or the Local Educational Authority. If the bullying is really severe, it is possible that it could be considered a criminal activity.
There are several organisations which may be able to help you and provide support if you think your child is being bullied.

Bullying at School and the Law

Some forms of bullying are illegal and should be reported to the police, in particular cases that involve physical violence and theft. For information on how to report a bullying case to the police visit .GOV.uk.


What is harassment?

Harassment is a form of bullying. Bullying itself isn’t against the law, but harassment is. It is unwanted behaviour often relating to a specific “protected characteristic” which has the effect of infringing an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.
“Protected characteristics” are personal characteristics such as:

  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • race
  • disability
  • religion or belief
  • political opinion (Northern Ireland) 
  • age 
  • gender re-assignment
  • pregnancy and maternity

How might a person be harassed?

  • Making offensive, threatening or abusive personal remarks about someone’s protected characteristics. 
  • Using explicit or provocative language or gestures.
  • Displaying or circulating inappropriate or offensive material.
  • Unwanted, intrusive or persistent questioning about someone’s protected characteristics.
  • Making unwanted physical or verbal contact. 
  • Applying pressure to participate in political or religious groups.

The individual complaining does not essentially have to have the protected characteristic themselves, and may believe they are being harassed because they:

  • Are wrongly perceived to have a protected characteristic. 
  • Associate with someone with a protected characteristic.

An individual may also complain of harassment if the alleged conduct is not directed at them, but creates a hostile, degrading or offensive environment.

Harassment and the Law

Harassment is a specific offence and now legally defined in UK discrimination law.
See the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 

What to do if you are being bullied or harassed

  • Keep a written record of any incidents and detail all the fact such as date and times, the names of any witnesses, your response and your feelings
  • Consider making your feelings known to the bully. You can do this in person or in writing and you can take a representative with you for support and to act as a witness
  • Talk to colleagues and acquaintances – find out if you are the only person being bullied or whether anyone else is affected in the same way. A group complaint may carry more weight, and support from others is helpful when challenging bullying behaviour
  • Keep copies of any appraisals, letters, or memos, texts, posts etc that are relevant
  • In work cases, ensure you know exactly what your job description and role responsibilities are so you can see that the responsibility you are given matches it.
  • Check whether your employer or school has a policy on bullying or on harassment
  • If necessary seek medical help. 
  • If your employer provides a welfare service or an Employee Assistance Programme consider contacting them
  • Find out your employer’s grievance procedure
  • Consider making an official complaint by speaking to a person of authority within school or work. You might need to do this if the incidents are serious or if challenging the bully has not worked.
  • For cyber bullies visit childline for excellent step by step advice.

You should not feel you have to suffer in silence or feel that you are in any way to blame if you are experiencing bullying. Your complaint should be taken seriously and procedures followed.

Cyber Bullying

What is Cyber Bullying?

Cyber bullying is bullying, only it relates to text or image based digital communication.
With the ever increasing popularity of social networking websites cyber bullying is dramatically on the increase and particularly effects those still in education.

Cyber bullying may be determined by:

  • Sending malicious or insulting text messages.
  • Posting inappropriate images or text for public viewing on a social networking website.
  • Using the internet, intranet or any other form of digital communication to ridicule another person.

How to report cyber bullying

Visit childline for excellent step by step advice

Victimisation of a bully victim

Victimisation is a specific term used following the aftermath of a complaint made against a bully. In this context, you may be victimised if you are treated less favourably because:

  • You have brought, or are considering bringing, a grievance or legal proceedings against a company, authority or another person.
  • Have given (or intend to give) evidence or information about a grievance or legal proceeding brought about someone else against a company, authority or another person.
  • Have taken part in legitimate activities such as union duties.
  • Have raised genuine concerns about wrongdoing in a responsible manner.

You may subsequently be victimised and subjected to:

  • Being picked on.
  • Being labelled as a troublemaker. 
  • Being prevented from making a complaint.
  • Direct discrimination, i.e. if someone is treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic, for example gender or race.

Other useful facts about bullying, harassment and victimisation

The Effects of bullying, harassment and victimisation

The effects of bullying, harassment and victimisation are damaging to all involved; individuals, companies and authorities.

The individual being bullied may feel:

  • Anxiety, anger, isolation, depression. 
  • Decreased concentration levels or dips in performance. 
  • Embarrassment, guilt or loss of self-worth
  • General health problems

In the workplace:

  • Increased time off or sickness because of low morale or stress. 
  • Inefficiency and poor performance with reduced productivity. 
  • Higher staff turnover and the costs of recruiting and training. 
  • Legal action and tribunal proceedings with the risk of a loss of public image.
  • A climate of tension, fear and resentment in the workplace.

In School:

  • Increased time off or sickness because of low morale or stress.
  • Poor results and decline in standard of school work.
  • Reputation of the school may be affected.
  • Unhappy environment and awkwardness around fellow pupils.

The culprit – The one who is bullying/harassing:

  • Disciplinary action against them, possibly up to and including dismissal, suspension or expulsion.
  • Have to address their behaviours and effects on others. 
  • Need to work with the department or authority to understand the consequences of their actions.
  • Legal action

What you can do if you witness bullying

  • Speak to your manager or if in school a teacher about the best way of dealing with it in a constructive and non-confrontational way. 
  • Don’t assume it has nothing to do with you. If you have witnessed bullying you have a responsibility to do something about it.

How can an authoritive figure prevent bullying and how should they handle a case brought to their attention?

  • Set a good example. 
  • Be open and approachable to everyone in your team or class
  • Make it clear that you will deal with bullying, harassment or victimisation as soon as you are made aware of it.
  • Examine the cause of any tension or conflict between members of your team or pupils – don’t ignore it.
  • Always handle matters with tact and discretion. 
  • Never give the impression that you are trying to discourage an individual from coming forward or that you are taking sides.
  • If you see or become aware of inappropriate behaviour try to deal with the problem before a complaint is made.
  • Never ignore worrying signs or put off action in the hope that the situation will right itself – if you do, you are not fulfilling your responsibilities and the problem is likely to get worse.
  • Raise your concerns with the recipient (victim) to check hat they regard the behaviour in the same way as you. 
  • If they don’t wish to pursue it, make sure you still address any unresolved tensions.
  • If they do wish to pursue it then follow procedures that are in place.

If a person tells you directly that they are being bullied, harassed or victimised:

  • See if you can resolve the problem informally through discussion.
  • Encourage the person making the complaint to take a short time for reflection, as sometimes the initial reaction is to take offence at behaviour, however on reflection it may not be unreasonable, just misunderstood.
  • If the person who has complained is comfortable for you to do so, discuss the matter with the person they have complained about as often people do not realise that their behaviour is seen as bullying.

If someone comes to you as the person of authority because they feel that they are the subject of inappropriate behaviour:

  • Try to put the situation into perspective – put yourself in their shoes.
  • Think about explaining to the other person that their behaviour is unwelcome and that they must stop. Often, people are not aware that their behaviour is upsetting so a discussion could resolve the problem and prevent a full scale bullying complaint in the future.

If handled correctly (and with sensitivity, speed and through discussion), after an apology to the recipient many incidents are resolved amicably.

Some useful links and documents:

Equality Act 2010 – The Equality Act 2010 is the law which bans unfair treatment and helps achieve equal opportunities in the workplace and in wider society.

Acas – Bullying and Harassment at Work (Booklet)

Acas – Managing Conflict at Work (Booklet)

Childline – For children who feel worried and need to talk no matter how small their problem may seem.