Bullying and Harassment FAQs

Frequently asked questions about bullying and harassment


Bullying and harassment are serious workplace issues that can have an incredibly negative effect on the health and wellbeing of employees. In this article, we will answer several frequently asked questions about bullying and harassment.

What is bullying?

While bullying does not have a specific legal definition, it is defined by Acas as ‘unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting
  • an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone’.

What is harassment?

Unlike bullying, harassment is legally defined in the Equality Act 2010, which considers it to be any ‘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’.

What is sexual harassment?

A common form of harassment that takes place in the workplace is sexual harassment, which is any unwanted or negative behaviour of a sexual nature. It can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

There are three main forms of sexual harassment:

  • Verbal, which includes any sexual comments, requests or threats.
  • Non-verbal, which includes inappropriate staring or taking of photographs without permission, or the display of sexually explicit materials.
  • Physical, which includes inappropriate touching, hugging, stroking or kissing.

Sexual harassment is illegal under the Equality Act 2010, so a person is entitled to take legal action or go to an employment tribunal if they experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

What is the difference between bullying and harassment?

The terms bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably because they are very similar concepts and behaviours. The main difference between them is that harassment specifically relates to a person’s protected characteristics, while bullying does not.

What are bullying behaviours?

There is no legal definition of bullying, so any negative behaviour a person experiences could be perceived as bullying. Some examples of bullying may include:

  • Making unwanted physical contact.
  • Making negative comments about a person’s appearance.
  • Setting impossible deadlines.
  • Sharing unwarranted criticism.
  • Spreading negative gossip or slander.
  • Isolating a person from work or social activities.
  • Spying and stalking a person.
  • Intentionally sharing a person’s confidential information.

These behaviours can also take place in several ways, including:

  • In person, online, or over email.
  • Via landline, mobile phone, or text messaging.
  • At work or in a work-related situation, such as a work party.
  • As a regular occurrence, or as a one-off incident.
  • In a sly or subtle way that is not immediately obvious to those being bullied or those around them.

What are the effects of bullying?

Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue, and can negatively affect a work environment and the people within it. Some of these effects include:

  • An increase in the rate of sickness and resignation.
  • A loss of productivity, both among those being bullied and those carrying it out.
  • The creation of a poor working environment that may prevent all employees from working to the best of their ability.

What is a bully?

Anyone can be a bully, regardless of things such as their seniority, age, or the length of time that they have worked for the organisation. Most bullying is carried out by someone who is, or believes they are, in a position of power over someone else. For example, a bully may:

  • Be in management or another position of authority.
  • Have worked at the organisation for more time.
  • Have influence over their co-workers and other staff members.

Bullying can also be carried out by staff members towards a more senior employee. This is known as ‘upward bullying,’ and includes behaviour such as:

  • Being disrespectful towards managers and their employer.
  • Refusing to complete tasks assigned to them.
  • Spreading rumours about management or the organisation.

Why do people bully?

There are a number of reasons why a person may bully others, including:

  • Lacking awareness about the impact of their behaviour.
  • Having poor communication skills.
  • Having low self-esteem.
  • Lacking proper management skills.
  • Bearing a grudge.
  • Having personal problems outside of the workplace.

Is there a law against harassment?

Yes, the Equality Act 2010 protects you from discrimination because of the following protected characteristics:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

This act protects people from harassment in a range of situations, including when at work or applying for a job. For more information on the Equality Act 2010, consider taking our Equality and Diversity training course.

Are there laws against bullying?

Unlike harassment, there is no legislation in the UK that explicitly prevents bullying at work. However, there are a number of laws and legal principles that may protect those who are being treated unfairly, such as:

  • The Employment Rights Act 1996 which, among other things, protects employees from experiencing detriment under certain circumstances.
  • The Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which is designed to protect people from any form of persistent conduct that causes them distress.
  • The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which requires employers to protect its staff from any risks to their health and safety.
  • The Human Rights Act 1998, which protects people from experiencing behaviour that infringes on their human rights.
  • The duty of care that employers have for their employees under common law, which requires employers to protect their employees from suffering any unreasonable harm or loss while at work.

At Commodious, we offer several training courses on bullying, harassment, equality and diversity that explore in detail what they are, and what can be done to avoid bullying and harassment, or promote equality and diversity, in the workplace. To find out more, use the links below: