Workplace bullying can take many forms and none of them are acceptable. You should never feel intimidated or offended in your place of work or by the behaviour of your colleagues.
Although bullying is not against the law, harassment is unlawful in the UK under the Equality Act 2010. This act legally protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society. The act replaced multiple laws such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. If you were subjected to harassment before October 1 2010, the Equality Act will not apply to you and your situation will be covered by the legislation in force at the time.
So how does harassment differ from bullying? Essentially, the line of harassment is crossed when the unwanted behaviour relates to one or more of the following areas: age; race; religion or belief; gender (including gender reassignment); sex; pregnancy and maternity; sexual orientation; marriage and civil partnership; and disability.
The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic [as above], 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”.
If you feel you are being harassed – which, remember, is not limited to face-to-face interactions but can also occur by letter, e-mail or telephone – first try to discuss the matter with the person or people in question. Make your feelings clear but avoid being confrontational. Perhaps the person concerned had genuinely failed to realise their comments were upsetting you? He or she might now be mortified.
If, however, this direct approach does not work, you should talk to your manager, a member of your organisation’s human resources department or your trade union representative.
Still no joy? You can make a formal complaint using your employer’s grievance procedure and if that step doesn’t work, and you are still being harassed, take legal action at an employment tribunal.
As soon as you feel concerned you might be a victim of harassment, start a diary of incidents, recording times and dates, witnesses and your feelings. Keep copies of documents relevant to your case, from annual reports to letters and memos. This sustained record-keeping might be critical to proving your point, as bullying and harassment often reveal themselves through patterns of behaviour and the frequency of incidents. Your records will be considered if your case goes to an employment tribunal.
Whatever happens, try not to feel helpless or alone. If you need more advice at any time, call a solicitor specialising in employment law or Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). Acas became a household name in the UK in the turbulent days of industrial unrest from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when large-scale disputes were more common than today. Now, Acas provides free and impartial information and advice to employers and employees on all aspects of workplace relations and employment law.
Bullying and harassment can make you feel anxious and humiliated. Don’t accept the unacceptable but don’t retaliate inappropriately (e.g. physically) either. Act calmly and legally to resolve the problem.
If your current situation is getting out of control, it may be best to talk to an employment lawyer, who can advise you of the next steps to take.