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Recognising when bullying becomes harassment

Published 16 December 2019

No employee should be subjected to unfavourable treatment at their place of work and in tackling such a problem an employer must be clear about what it is dealing with.

It is not uncommon for the victim of adverse behaviour in the workplace to include in the one complaint that they have been bullied and harassed.

Both are unwanted behaviour that make someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended.

The terms bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably and the two have different meanings, although harassment can include elements of bullying.

ACAS in its Bullying and Harassment at Work Guide define bullying and harassment as follows (1):

Harassment: unwanted conduct that violates people’s dignity or creates an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Bullying: Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

It can be much subtle than open displays of verbal and physical aggression. The National Bullying Helpline says the workplace bully deliberately manipulates, belittles, intimidates and tries to control or undermine their victim using any means available to them (2)

Bullying in the workplace takes many forms and it is important to remember that each incident may seem unimportant in isolation but there is a cumulative effect which builds into a much more serious situation.


The distinction between bullying and harassment is important. When the bullying behaviour directed at the target is also based on a protected characteristic, that behaviour is then defined as harassment

Harassment is covered by the Equality Act 2010 (3). Harassment typically centres around unwanted, offensive and intrusive behaviour the nature of which is sexual, racial or physical. Behaviour on these grounds is outlawed by the Act.

Harassment tends to be motivated by an outward personal characteristic of the target, such as gender, race, disability. The person who is being harassed will recognise straight away that they are being harassed.

The act of harassment at work will usually involve one worker, or in some cases more, causing a colleague to feel upset, shamed, intimidated, or violated in some way.


The type of behaviour the target is subjected to that can constitute harassment can include: the spreading of rumours, insults, practical jokes, exclusion, threats, unwelcome sexual advances, verbal and physical abuse and offensive behaviour or acts.

Harassment can occur as a result of unfavourable physical conduct by the perpetrator but it can also be spoken or in writing.

Technology has changed the way we interact and adult cyberbullying in the workplace is not uncommon. It can humiliate, undermine and distress the person being targeted.

It is a problem that is recognised to such an extent that it has led to ACAS to provide guidance for employers on dealing with the matter. (4)

ACAS state: The rise of online networking and the use of social media has seen the growth in a new type of bullying. Cyber bullying is any form of bullying, harassment or victimisation online. It can spill from on-screen to off-screen and affect the face-to-face interactions between colleagues at work and away from work.

An employer should take any complaint of harassment seriously as a failure to do so can have dire consequences.

A banker nicknamed "Crazy Miss Cokehead" and "Miss Bonkers" by bullying male colleagues was awarded £3.2 million for sexual harassment. (5)

A tribunal reportedly ruled that she suffered ‘disgraceful’ gender-based harassment and victimisation before being unfairly sacked.

It is in every employer’s interests to promote a safe, healthy and fair environment in which people can work. Clear and robust policies should be in place to deal with any allegation of bullying or harassment.



(1) Work Guide define bullying and harassment – [Internet] [Cited 16.12.19]

(2)The National Bullying Helpline - [Internet] [Cited 16.12.19]

(3) Harassment is covered by the Equality Act 2010 [Internet] [Cited 16.12.19]

(4) Guidance for employers on dealing with bullying – [Internet] [Cited 16.12.19]

(5) Awarded £3.2 million for sexual harassment – [Internet] [Cited 16.12.19]

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For free employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 0333 772 0611


A reputation built on success

For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 


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