The difficulty for employees experiencing bullying and harassment is proving it has actually taken place, or whether the behaviour is considered something less serious. The circumstances of a situation will usually have a significant impact on a claim and every case should be considered on an individual basis.
Bullying is unwelcome or unwarranted behaviour that has a specific objective – to injure, humiliate or denigrate – and may be insulting, offensive or malicious behaviour, or intimidation.
Harassment at work is demeaning and unacceptable, creating an environment of humiliation, hostility, offensiveness, degradation or intimidation for an individual. 'Harassment' has a very specific meaning under the Equality Act 2010 ('EA'), which consolidates all previous equality legislation. It protects against harassment and/or discrimination as a result of:
Where bullying and harassment at work do not fall within the EA, the behaviour may be prohibited by the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 ('PHA'). The PHA has a much wider scope than the equality legislation, as it does not specifically define harassment. There is no need to prove any type of physical or psychological injury under the PHA, but claims must be made within six years of the harassment.
A one off incident or unfair or unreasonable treatment will not constitute harassment under the PHA and there must be a series of acts (at least two) that are so oppressive on an individual that they could possibly result in a criminal sanction. There must be a link between the employee’s work and the harassment to make the employer responsible.
Bullying and harassment by a senior: This includes being given excessive workloads, unreasonable deadlines, unfair criticisms, reduced responsibilities, humiliating tasks or criticisms and denied promotions.
Bullying and harassment by a colleague of the same level: This can include threatening or abusive behaviour, physical assault, practical jokes and teasing.
Groups of colleagues picking on another colleague.
Harassment may also occur as a result of behaviour that is motivated by a belief that an employee has a characteristic they do not (for example, being ‘foreign’), or because of someone else (for example, because of a gay sibling).
Where bullying and harassment falls into one of the EA categories, a claim can be taken to an Employment Tribunal. The claim must be made within three months and one day of the date of the discrimination.
If there is psychiatric injury as a result of bullying and harassment, or the behaviour does not fall within the EA coverage, a County Court claim may be pursued. Here, it must be established that an employer knew in advance that the behaviour would cause psychiatric injury, not just embarrassment, frustration, or upset.
Because this is difficult to prove, success in a claim of this nature (a 'stress at work' claim) will usually require proof of a previous stress-related/psychiatric condition the employee experienced. An employee will have three years from the date of the onset of the psychiatric condition to bring a claim and will be personally liable for the costs it incurs if not proven.