The National Bullying Helpline specialise in workplace bullying and harassment disputes and offer practical solutions and support for anyone that’s experiencing bullying in the workplace. Bullying in the workplace can cover a vast range of topics including Bullying, Harassment, Stress and Constructive dismissal to mention a few. We talk to employees daily dealing with these bullying issues at their place of work. Many of our helpline callers are experiencing similar issues with their employer or colleagues and we are often asked the same question related to bullying, questions like “I’m signed off work because of bullying and I don’t want to go back, what should I do” or “ Can I sue my company if I’m being bullied”
We have put together some quick answers to the most frequently asked question we hear at the National Bullying Helpline. If you are looking for information and advice for any of the following questions, we can help. If you require advice about how to deal with a particular bullying issue at work and you can’t find the answers to your questions, please call our helpline on 0845 22 55 787.
Bullying is any form of unacceptable behaviour that causes individual distress. First, we all need to apply a little common-sense here in terms of what is reasonable behaviour. By way of guidance, most employers today have a Dignity at Work Policy or a Bullying & Harassment Policy where examples of unacceptable behaviour are set out. If an incident is minor and/or a one-off incident, the problem can usually be resolved through openness and communication. It may simply be a misunderstanding or oversight. Employers today will have both informal and formal grievance procedures in place, or they should!
If the unacceptable behaviour is so serious in your view, or it is repetitive or collusive (ie: more than one colleague behaving inappropriately towards you), or if the behaviour has triggered your work-related stress, you have a duty to inform your employer immediately and in writing. Talk to someone you trust. Review company policies. Consider the formal process. There is a great deal of information on the internet if you feel a need to seek reassurance about your circumstances. Look at the ACAS website or call our helpline if you are in any doubt about the merit of your case.
Some say bullying is about perception; If you believe you are being bullied, you probably are. There is a lot of truth in this statement but there are other factors to consider too. Is the (perceived) bullying impacting on your performance or your health? Do you suffer from headaches or nausea? Are you having sleepless nights or do you dread Monday mornings? If a combination of these symptoms applies then something is wrong. You need to take control of the situation and do something about it.
Employers have a Duty of Care to provide a safe and stress-free place of work. Simply, if you believe you are being bullied (see above), you need to trigger a formal process. The situation may be affecting colleagues around you. Observing bullying behaviour can be extremely distressing too. You must report matters to your employer. If you don’t, you cannot hold the employer responsible in any way. An employer cannot be expected to resolve conflict if they are not told about that conflict. They certainly cannot be held accountable if you have not informed them. So, tell management at an early stage, before matters escalate. Speak out. Start by reviewing the company policies and keep a diary of events (at home). Trigger an informal, or a formal complaint. If matters do not improve speak to an employment specialist or call us.
Triggering a formal process under any circumstances can be a daunting prospect. Contentious situations can carry a certain amount of risk but very often the perceived risk is simply fear of the unknown. Understanding your rights and your options will help you decide what to do. If you believe something inappropriate is occurring in your workplace, you have a contractual obligation to inform your employer. You also have legal rights (employment rights) not to suffer detriment for raising a Grievance. If you do not inform your employer about the bullying, one might accuse you of condoning the behaviour or even being complicit (involved) in that inappropriate behaviour. Set the record straight. Clear your name. Communicate with your employer. First, though, let’s have a look at your options.
Do nothing. The bully wins. You may even be accused of participating in bullying behaviour. If you know something needs to change but you do not take control of the situation soon, at some point your health will suffer. You may even have a complete health breakdown and end up with Work-Related Stress or worse. If you lose your job because the bully dismisses you or orchestrates your dismissal, you lose your job anyway. Your long-term prospects will be affected and this, in turn, will impact on your future income and your quality of life.
Resign and walk away. The bully wins. OK, so you can start afresh. You may even have a new job. Maybe that is all you want… a new beginning. This is understandable but you will have no legal case if you resign and walk away without first triggering the in-house dispute resolution process. You leave behind a bullying culture and others will likely be bullied after you have left. Only resign and walk away if you have thought about it very carefully and you are truly prepared to put the experience behind you.
Raise a Grievance. Dig out the Company Grievance procedure and start to draft a written complaint. Follow the process. Seek advice. Speak to ACAS or call us if you need help. Tell your employer how you feel and ask them, in writing, to follow their policy and investigate your complaint. It may be that your employer is unaware of the situation. Your complaint will enable them to address the culture and reinforce acceptable standards, policies and procedures. Everyone wins.
If you remain frightened and truly believe you might suffer repercussion, or lose your job, just because you raise a complaint - we urge you to ask yourself the following questions. Is your fear based on something your employer has said to you or is it based on perception? Remember, perception is not real.
If your employer has said something intimidatory to you which is preventing you from triggering the formal complaints process, we can say with certainty that your employer is a ‘rogue employer’. If you want proof, ask your employer to write to you setting out why you should not proceed with raising a formal complaint by following The ACAS Code of Practice. Ask your employer to confirm in writing that you will not suffer repercussion for raising a complaint. If you do suffer repercussion, your employer has behaved unlawfully and this, in turn, will strengthen your case.
The good employer will never threaten an employee. The good employer will want to encourage openness and transparency and will encourage staff to do the same. An ‘employer of choice’ provides a much safer and happier working environment where people prosper and grow. It’s a no brainer!
If your employer is No.2 above, it seems you may be working for a highly dubious employer. Who in their right mind would want to continue working for an employer who threatens their staff? Do you want to stay with this Company and spend the remainder of your career delivering your time and skills to an employer that treats you so disrespectfully? Really? You should know right now, there are plenty of other opportunities out there waiting for you. Call us before you resign. Call us for a confidential chat if you have any concerns.
A line manager or head of the department is ultimately responsible for ensuring his or her department runs smoothly and efficiently. Managers of people should all have had some form of diversity training or leadership training and they should also understand company policies and procedures. You can ask your manager to refer you to those policies. At this point, he may want to talk to you about what is troubling you. Be open and transparent with him and inform him of your concerns.
If a manager is aware there is conflict within his team, he should look into matters immediately. If he does not do this it may be because he is involved or implicated in some way, or it may be for some other reason. He may lack the necessary skill required to resolve matters or he may feel reluctant to escalate matters to more senior management.
Some people simply prefer to avoid conflict – it is human nature. However, a manager has a responsibility, a duty in fact, to both his team and to the organisation as a whole, to ensure contentious issues are dealt with promptly. A manager should have the ability and the confidence required to address matters informally at the outset – to nip problems in the bud. If matters cannot be resolved amicably through discussion, escalate concerns to a more senior and more skilled member of the management team. If it is a senior Director or the business owner who you are having problems with, seek professional advice or call our helpline.
We say that addressing a bullying issue, whatever your role (employee, manager or bystander) is about common-sense and good administration. Simply refer to your in-house policies and either raise matters informally or put your concerns in writing by submitting a formal Stage 1 Grievance (a complaint). It is the written, documented, word that constitutes evidence - including your file notes containing dates, facts and details.
Start by documenting a couple of examples of the behaviour that is distressing to you, research the procedure and speak to a member of the management team who you trust. Focus on the written word, not the spoken word (gossip). If there is an HR department, ask to speak to someone who deals with employee relations. If matters are not resolved informally, set out your concerns in writing to include the fact that you have told a member of the management team and matters were not resolved. Keep a diary. Gather documentary evidence. Escalate matters to a more senior manager.
There are no bullying laws in the UK but there are numerous laws which an employee can rely on to bring legal action against an employer including discrimination laws and laws about a constructive dismissal claim. An employee would need to resign to claim constructive dismissal and even then, they may not have a strong case.
It is rarely straightforward. The process can be costly and certainly stressful. Proceeding to an Employment Tribunal will depend on the actions of both the employee and employer, the processes followed and the strength of a case. An employee considering legal action against their employer needs to seek legal advice before proceeding and will need to be able to demonstrate that they have followed in-house complaints policies. The employee also needs to adhere to timelines and ACAS and Tribunal process before a case will be accepted.
If the employee believes they can prove that their employer has done something unlawful, this may be a Whistleblowing matter – not necessarily a tribunal matter. Seek legal advice in every case or call our helpline for assistance.
You can resign, work your notice and leave quietly. However, if you have not followed the in-house dispute resolution process (by raising a formal Stage 1 Grievance and a Stage 2 Appeal), you have no legal recourse. This means you will not be able to take your employer to an Employment Tribunal because (a Tribunal and your employer will say) you did not give your employer reasonable opportunity to investigate the alleged bullying. Before you resign, speak to an independent expert and ask them to talk you through your options.
We always say to helpline callers ‘Do not resign. Do not make a life-changing decision until you have fully explored and therefore understand all your options’. One call to our helpline will help you to make the right decision.
A lot of callers to our helpline believe they need to be able to prove that they are being bullied before they raise a complaint at work. This is not necessarily the case, although any evidence which would substantiate a complaint (emails, letters etc) would be deemed to be helpful.
All you need to do is raise the concern with your employer. Be open with your employer and tell them what is troubling you. Once you raise a formal written complaint the responsibility shifts to an employer to arrange for your concerns to be thoroughly and independently investigated. If you can produce a diary or emails, or documents to substantiate (support) your claim, this may strengthen your case. A good investigator will soon be able to ascertain whether something inappropriate is occurring. Place your trust in the process.
You may need professional assistance to help you understand the strength of your case. If you have been signed off work by your GP with Work-Related Stress, for example, the doctors’ certificate will need to be sent to your employer. To stay at home without either permission from your employer or a GP certificate would be a breach of contract and you risk facing dismissal. If you remain at home for a considerable period under a sick certificate even, you run the risk that your employer will ask their GP or Occupational Health team to independently assess whether it is likely that you will ever be well enough to return to work. This could result in a loss of job if you have not made it clear, in writing, that your ill-health is due to your employer's failure to address a bullying culture.
If you believe you are being bullied at work and that has impacted on your health, you need to inform your employer in writing. Consider your options and start to prepare your case. Refer to the Company Grievance policy and follow it. If you do not want to raise a Grievance, you can speak to your employer informally and ask to transfer to another department perhaps. You can always resign if the situation is unacceptable to you but do not resign believing you have a strong case. You need to be able to show that you followed the in-house dispute resolution process (ie: a Grievance). Do not resign before seeking expert advice.
What makes you think you are a bully? Have you been accused of being a bully? Do you believe you reacted recklessly or unnecessarily aggressive, so feel remorseful? Well, we are all human!
If you believe you are a bully it is highly unlikely you are. Bullies are generally oblivious of their actions. The fact that you are examining your actions and/or feelings is extremely commendable and you will, very likely, recover from this phase or situation you are going through. We are pleased that you are seeking to challenge and ‘better’ yourself as a person. This trait is not typical of a bully! You may have acted out of character in a difficult situation but that is likely to be something that will be remedied over time. If you have been accused of being a bully, we can help you. For more information please see the Guide we have written which you can download from The National Bullying Helpline website. What to do if Accused of Being a Bully.
Accused of being a bully
Subtle Bullying is described as the actions of someone who behaves with mischief, often intentional and usually behind your back, with negative motive ie: to ease you out of your role or cause you professional embarrassment for example. It may be that the bully wants to bring you to disrepute or have you excluded in some way. Exclusion is bullying.
Often, the behaviour of this ' stealth like’ bullies creeps up slowly but impacts on you negatively and leaves you questioning yourself. When confronted, the bully will go into denial. This can be extremely frustrating. The bully will be quick to blame others. They may even blame circumstance. Bullies are cowards! As an example employers (typically the line manager) who does not have the skills to performance or capability manage an individual may create a vexatious redundancy scenario to dismiss an employee. This does not mean to say every Redundancy situation is not genuine but the term Redundancy is far too often and inappropriately by the Corporate bully.
If you believe you are being bullied, you do not have to prove it. All you need to do is raise a written, formal, complaint and ask your employer to arrange for someone independent to investigate your concerns. A good investigator with employment law knowledge will quickly ascertain whether anything inappropriate or unlawful is occurring.
Headaches, nausea, sleeplessness are just some symptoms of stress. If you suffer from stress and your Doctor has signed you off with ‘Work-Related Stress’ it would be reasonable to say your employer is responsible for your ill health. However, what you do about it is crucial. You cannot hold an employer responsible for something they do not know about.
You need to write to your employer and explain what it is that is upsetting you and what it is that has resulted in your current ill-health. The responsible employer will want to investigate matters – even if only to exonerate themselves from future risk of litigation. If an employer allows you to return to a workplace that is likely to, or has in the recent past, caused your ill health – it would be irresponsible and probably a failure of the employer's Duty of Care to provide you with a ‘safe and stress-free place of work’. You need to seek professional advice as a matter of priority in this circumstance.
There are a variety of reasons why an individual is targeted by bullies. The answer may simply be because you are different in some way or because the bullies perceive you to be a threat to them. Bullying is an abuse of power. For some reason, the bully in your case may just want to control you. Sadly, there is no simple explanation and no two cases are the same. It’s a complex business indeed.
What matters is how you respond and what you do about the situation. If you believe you are being bullied, do some research and open up a file. Keep a diary (at home) and keep key documents, research material, policies etc., and start to strategize your case. Put a plan together. Be careful not to remove confidential data from the workplace before redacting it but keep file notes of discussions you have with management or with HR. There is a lot of information available on the internet these days that will help you. Talk to someone you trust or call our helpline if you remain concerned and need FREE expert advice.
Initial symptoms of bullying include tearfulness (for no reason), feelings of anxiety, distress, loss of confidence, loss of sleep, nausea etc. Our helpline is extremely busy on a Sunday night simply because a bullied employee will fear facing the bully on a Monday morning. Does this sound familiar?
If matters are not resolved quickly, these feelings of insecurity and ill health can escalate to something far more serious such as Work-Related Stress or other health-related disorders. Over time these can be long lasting and deep routed and trigger weeks or even months of Work-Related Stress absence. If you notice your confidence levels slipping or your performance levels dropping, examine your circumstances and start to keep a workplace diary, at home. Tearfulness, loss of sleep, headaches, nausea, fear of Monday mornings are all symptoms of a stressful situation that is starting to impact on your health. Do not ignore it. Speak to someone. Read our article on Post Traumatic Embitterment Disorder and if you can relate to it, contact us immediately.
Sometimes, we become so distressed we are unable to see a clear way forward. If you have spoken to your employer and no action has been taken, you have either spoken to the wrong person or you have spoken to someone who lacks the necessary skill to know what to do.
Put your concerns in writing to your employer. That way you can take photocopies and escalate your original complaint to more senior management if you need to. Ask for a copy of the in-house Grievance procedure and follow it. If you have put your concerns in writing, formally, and your employer has taken no action at all, this may be a breach of procedure which is unlawful. Call our helpline as we can refer you to someone who will be able to assess your case and advise you what steps to take next.