Is bullying in the workplace an HR or health and safety issue?

Posted on written by Sam Barton

While workplaces should be an environment where employees feel safe and can get on with their job, this isn’t always the case.

Even though conflict can arise at times which is only natural when you put several people in a room together for hours every day, one-off disagreements are a lot different than bullying.

Bullying shouldn’t be acceptable anywhere but it is something that many of us would associate with school rather than an adult place of work. Unfortunately, bullying does happen in the workplace. It can have a devastating effect on a person as well as other staff too.

In this weeks’ blog, we are going to cover:

  • What workplace bullying is
  • What the responsibilities are as an employer
  • What can be done about it

We’re also going to ask the question – is workplace bullying an HR issue or a health and safety issue?

What is bullying in the workplace?

Bullying at work isn’t actually defined by law, but it can take several forms. For example, bullying could be:

  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Unfair treatment
  • Picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • Denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities

Bullying could also consist of:

  • Using aggressive or obscene language towards someone
  • Intimidating another employee
  • Setting impossible deadlines or unreasonable tasks

Bullying doesn’t have to be ‘in person’ as phone calls, emails and texts can all constitute bullying behaviour towards another person.

We should make the distinction between bullying and harassment because they are two different things. Harassment is defined in The Equality Act (2010) as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic.” These protected characteristics are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

So, while harassment has a clear definition in law, bullying is a little more vague, but that doesn’t mean that it is any less significant.

Is it a health and safety issue?

Bullying is a serious problem. Not just for the victim but the organisation as well.

When we think of bullying, we generally associate it with human resources. If there is an issue at work such as bullying, then you go to HR to help address the issue. While that is correct, it also falls under the guise of health and safety as well.

In fact, a TUC report found that 45% of safety representatives in the workplace felt that bullying is in their top 5 workplace concerns.

The reason it is a health and safety issue is that the impact of bullying can lead to safety problems. Things like stress and other mental health problems are growing in work, and it can lead to reduced safety performance, lapses in concentration and other issues.
Under The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974), employers have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of their employees. They also have a duty of care towards workers so that they are free from bullying or harassment.

What can you do about bullying at work?

Bullying in the workplace isn’t just about one person picking on someone else.

It could also be a culture within a particular company or endemic in an organisation. That being said, if an employee feels like they are being bullied, then there are some steps they should take.

If the matter can’t be resolved informally by speaking to the other person, with a line manager or human resources, then the next option is to lodge a formal grievance. Many issues of bullying can be rectified when a line manager or someone in a more senior position gets involved. However, your employer should have a grievance policy and one that specifically deals with bullying.

If the grievance is upheld, then disciplinary action can and often will be taken against the bully. If the grievance isn’t upheld then you will have the right to appeal. Each organisation will have its own set of procedures to follow.

As bullying differs from harassment, you won’t be able to go to an employment tribunal for bullying alone unless it verges into harassment under The Equality Act 2010. That being said, if the impact of bullying means that an employer has failed in their duties under The Health and Safety at Work Act. Or, in their duty of care towards an employee, this can lead to an employment tribunal especially if the person has had to leave work which would fall under constructive dismissal.

You can find more information here.

Bullying in the workplace: HR or health and safety?

Bullying in the workplace can be more common than you think.

Many people don’t report it due to many reasons, so the actual impact is often never known.

Bullying falls under both human resources as well as health and safety. It is an HR issue because it involves conflict between employees; however, it has health and safety implications too. This isn’t just related to the bullying itself, but can also cause problems that stem from the bullying such as making mistakes at work, poor concentration and a host of other things that can make a workplace unsafe.

Everyone should be able to carry out their work safely and free from bullying or harassment.

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