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Q&A: Bullying and harassment in the workplace

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Employment law specialists Empire HR advise best practice for tackling bullying and harassment in the workplace.


Q1. What constitutes harassment?
I’ve noticed that some of my employees indulge in light hearted banter. As it often seems to be at the expense of one individual I am concerned that this could possibly be construed as harassment. Can you advise what actually constitutes harassment in the workplace?

A. Harassment is deemed as unwanted conduct that violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. It can include personal insults, personal criticism, demeaning comments, intimidation, misuse of power, work-related harassment, social exclusion (including, isolation and victimisation) and is usually repeated and persistent unwanted behaviour. Harassment is defined largely by the impact of the behaviour on the recipient, not its intention.

Q2.What if the alleged bully denies everything?
I’ve had a complaint from one employee that she is being harassed by one of her colleagues. I have spoken to the other person and he has denied that he is harassing her so I am unsure what to do next.

A. Harassment is not necessarily the intention of the perpetrator but it is the deed itself and the impact that it has on the recipient that constitutes harassment. Therefore if one of your employees considers that she is being harassed then, as her employer, you must take this seriously and conduct a full investigation. You should ask the employee to give clear examples of the conduct which she believes amounts to harassment and get details of any witnesses to this conduct. If there is found to be evidence of harassment the disciplinary procedure may require to be instigated

Q3. What if I suspect bullying?
I run a small company and employ five personnel. No complaint has been made but I am sure that one of my employees is bullying another. The person that I think is being bullied has uncharacteristically started calling in sick and I have also noticed a downturn in his output. What can I do to resolve this situation?

A. All employers have a duty to ensure that harassment does not occur in work areas for which they are responsible. Employers have a further responsibility to explain the company’s policy to their staff and to take steps to positively promote the policy.

In this situation a meeting should be held with the employee who is suspected of being bullied. The manager should discuss their concerns with the employee and give the employee a chance to explain their absence and downturn in work. The manager should reassure the employee that the meeting is confidential. If the employee confirms that they are being bullied the manager should explain the harassment and bullying policy to the employee and ask how the employee would like to proceed.

If the employee would like to proceed informally they may want to approach the accused themselves and highlight the way their behaviour is making them feel and let them know that if the behaviour continues they will raise a formal complaint. In many cases this informal approach is often enough to rectify the situation. However the employee may not feel they can approach the individual themselves and may feel happier if the manager or another member of staff informally tries to stop the unwanted behaviour.

If the employee decides to proceed formally a full investigation should be undertaken in line with the company’s bullying and harassment procedure.

Q4.Female employee bullying male colleague
One of my male employees has confided in one of my managers that he is being harassed by one of the female employees. He is embarrassed by the situation and does not wish to raise a formal grievance. Without this is it possible for me to address the situation with the female employee as I do not want this situation to continue or to arise again in the future?

A. All managers must be responsive and supportive to any member of staff who complains about harassment; they should provide advice on the procedure to be adopted and maintain confidentiality.

A meeting should be held with the employee to establish their concerns and to advise of the company’s bullying and harassment procedure. The manager should establish examples of the type of behaviour the employee has been subjected to and thereafter may take the decision to commence a formal investigation. It is imperative all managers take steps to ensure all employees have access to a safe system of work free from bullying and harassment.


Empire HR provide commercially focused employment law and HR support service including a telephone advice line, HR Consultancy, employment tribunal insurance and health & safety support for businesses across Scotland. Empire HR can be contacted on 01224 701383 or at Empire hr

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