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The difference with bullying and harassment and the importance in addressing both

Published 06 November 2017

When victims complain of being bullied in the workplace it can often include a claim that they have been harassed as well.

There is a modern tendency to use bullying and harassment together to describe unfavourable behaviour and treatment, as the two mean similar things.

Many people mistakenly believe that they are the same, but they are different in the eyes of the law. It is important for an employer to be clear on the difference.

Harassment (1)  in the workplace targets individuals or groups based on a protected characteristic such as gender, race, or ethnicity. For a workplace bully, who or what the person is makes no difference whatsoever.

ACAS, in its Bullying and Harassment guide (2), states that bullying may be characterised as: offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. .

Harassment, that may include bullying behaviour, is bad treatment that is related to a protected characteristic (3) , such as age, sex, disability, race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.

It is defined in law as 'unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.'

Harassment in the workplace can include behaviour a worker finds offensive even if it is not directed at them, and even if they do not have the relevant protected characteristics themselves.

While the law covers harassment, this does not mean that an employee who makes a complaint of bullying does not have any protection.

All employers have a duty of care (4) to their employees, which means that they should take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. 

Organisations should take a zero-tolerance approach to any form of bullying and harassment and ensure that senior staff are trained to identify and deal with such issues (5). Many organisations now have a specific policy to deal with these matters and to ensure that the workplace is not an intimidating, unpleasant or offensive environment.

A dedicated bullying and harassment policy should define the type of behaviour that is considered bullying and that which is considered harassment.

Failing to address instances of bullying and harassment can have a damaging impact not only on the individual workers, but also on an organisation.

Productivity can be badly affected, performances inevitably suffer, there can also be an increase in sickness absences and it can lead to high staff turnover.

Employees who complain of being bullied or harassed should be aware of how they can raise any such complaint. This can normally be done by raising a formal grievance (6).

Employers are encouraged to attempt an initial informal attempt to resolve any grievance. It is in an employer's interests to try and resolve complaints about unwanted behaviour quickly and informally, where they can, as this can protect the working relationship.

However, this may not always be possible with complaints of bullying and harassment due to the emotional impact such behaviour often has on the victim.

Clearly identifying the type of behaviour complained about, and dealing with it appropriately, fairly and effectively without unreasonable delay is crucial. Such investigations can be time consuming and costly and impact on morale.

It is important to get it right as a failure to do so can lead to an employee claiming a loss of trust and confidence in an employer, which leaves it open to a claim for constructive dismissal.

Creating a working environment that is safe, healthy and fair is in an employer’s best interests as it can also reassure staff that they can work without fear of being bullied or harassed.


  1. Harassment at work [Internet]. [cited 2017 Oct 23]. Available from:
  2. Bullying and harassment | Acas advice and guidance [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2017 Oct 24]. Available from:
  3. Protected characteristics | Equality and Human Rights Commission [Internet]. [cited 2017 Oct 24]. Available from:
  4. The Cube 123 Albion Street. An employer’s duty of care can manifest itself in many different ways. Find out more | Acas workplace snippets [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2017 Oct 24]. Available from:
  5. Bullying and harassment - Advice for managers [Internet]. [cited 2017 Oct 24]. Available from:
  6. Grievance Procedure [Internet]. Castle Associates Ltd. [cited 2017 Oct 24]. Available from:

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