A Plain English Guide To British Employment Law

Bullying at Work

My boss is a bully – what are my rights?

Bullying at work is when someone tries to intimidate another worker, often in front of colleagues. It is usually, though not always, done to someone in a less senior position. It is similar to harassment, which is where someone’s behaviour is offensive (eg. making sexual comments, or abusing someone’s race, religion or sexual orientation).

If you are being bullied at work – consider writing a formal grievance letter.

You cannot make a legal claim directly about bullying, but complaints can be made under laws covering discrimination and harassment (in connection with discrimination). If you are forced to resign due to bullying you may be able to make a constructive dismissal claim under employment law.

What is bullying at work?

Bullying includes abuse, physical or verbal violence, humiliation and undermining someone’s confidence. You are probably being bullied if you are:

  • constantly picked on
  • humiliated in front of colleagues
  • regularly unfairly treated
  • physically or verbally abused
  • blamed for problems caused by others
  • always given too much to do, so that you regularly fail in your work
  • regularly threatened with the sack
  • unfairly passed over for promotion or denied training opportunities

Bullying can be face-to-face, in writing, over the phone or by email or other forms of messaging (eg. text, what’s app etc). People can be bullied by their boss or other colleagues.

How do I use my employment law rights to stop bullying at work?

If you think you are being bullied by your boss or anyone else, it is best to talk it over with someone. Sometimes what seems like bullying might not be.

For example, you might have more work to do because of a change in the way your organisation is run. If you find it difficult to cope, talk to your boss – or if you are being bullied by your boss talk to their boss.

If this doesn’t work, you can consider writing a formal grievance letter.

What can I do if I’m being bullied at work?

Employers have a ‘duty of care’ to their employees and this includes dealing with bullying at work. There are measures you can take if you are being bullied.

Where can I get employment law advice about bullying at work?

Speak to someone about how you might deal with the problem informally. This might be:

  • an employee representative like a trade union official
  • someone in the human resources (HR) department
  • your boss or – if you are being bullied by your boss – their boss

Some employers have specially trained staff to help with bullying and harassment problems. They are sometimes called ‘harassment advisers’. If the bullying is affecting your health, visit your doctor.

Should I talk to the bully at work before taking legal action?

The bullying may not be deliberate. If you can, talk to the person in question, who may not realise how their behaviour has been affecting you. Work out what to say beforehand. Describe what has been happening and why you object to it. Stay calm and be polite. If you don’t want to talk to them yourself, ask someone else to do so for you.

Should I keep a written record or diary of bullying at work?

Write down details of every incident and keep copies of any relevant documents.

Should I make a formal complaint of bullying at work?

Making a formal complaint is the next step if you can’t solve the problem informally – consider submitting a formal grievance letter.

What if my line manager is bullying me and the grievance procedure says I need to talk to them in the first instance?

Make the complaint in writing to your line manager and ask that it is passed on to another manager to look into. If that doesn’t happen, or isn’t possible, make the complaint to your boss’s manager or HR department.

What if the person bullying me is a sole trader or the firm’s managing director or owner?

Follow the grievance procedure. It may help you later if you have to take legal action against your employer.

What can I do if my boss is violent and abusive towards me and I’m afraid to make a complaint?

If you think that making a complaint will cause further bullying or harassment, you don’t need to follow normal grievance procedures. You can take legal action – and if you fear for your safety you should contact the police.

Can I use employment law to sue my boss for bullying at work?

Sometimes the problem continues even after you have followed your employer’s grievance procedure. If nothing is done to put things right, you can think about legal action to sue your boss. The first thing to do is write a formal grievance letter. If this doesn’t resolve things, you can then consider going to an Employment Tribunal.

Remember that it is not possible to go to an Employment Tribunal directly over bullying. Complaints can be made under laws covering discrimination and harassment  (in connection with discrimination).

If you have left your job because of bullying, you might be able to claim unfair constructive dismissal.