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The law: bullying in the workplace

Tuesday 23 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Q What constitutes "bullying"?

A Differences of opinion and even short-lived arguments are an unavoidable part of the workplace. The natural conflicts of a working environment turn into bullying when aggressive behaviour becomes regular and vindictive. It often – but not always – is associated with a position of authority being abused. Bullying generally comes down to demeaning able staff in front of others or giving them unrealistic quantities of work to carry out. It can involve excluding them from meetings, conversations and social activities, making them feel like outsiders in their own workplace.

Bullying does not need to happen face-to-face: it can take the form of slighting memos, emails or phone conversations. The arbitration service Acas says: "Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient."

The Trades Union Congress advises union members: "Usually if you genuinely feel you are being singled out for unfair treatment... you are probably being bullied."

Q What is the legal position?

A Under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, employers are required to ensure the well-being of their staff. If they fail, they are breaching an employee's contract. Harassment on the grounds of race, sex, disability, age or sexual orientation runs counter to anti-discrimination legislation.

Q What action can a bullying victim take?

A He or she should keep a detailed record, before confronting the bully, or their line manager. If it does not stop then, union members are advised by Acas to seek their union's support and advice if they want to pursue a complaint. Victims do not have the right to complain to an industrial tribunal unless they argue that anti-discrimination legislation has been broken. Employers are legally obliged to have procedures for dealing with health and safety issues and to investigate complaints. The employer can decide whether the case merits counselling, mediation between the people involved or disciplinary action. Nigel Morris

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