Skip to Main Content

Building a climate of respect: What is bullying and harassment?

What is bullying and harassment?


There is no UK wide legal definition of bullying. NHS Employers refers to these ACAS definitions:

Harassment is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.

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. Bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people. It may be obvious or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.

The BMA in its review of workplace bullying and harassment (BMA, 2017) also adds:

"The line between bullying and harassment and other behaviour such as workplace banter or performance management may not always seem clear. It is important to remember that how behaviour is received and the actual impact it has on the recipient is a key consideration. It is not sufficient to say that nothing was meant by it; it was just a joke; or the other person should just toughen up. Under the legal definition of harassment, for example, it is not necessary to prove that behaviour was intended to cause harm, degrade, humiliate or offend someone. It is sufficient just to show that it had that effect. An employment tribunal will give particular weight to the perception of the recipient of the behaviour. It will also consider whether it was reasonable in all the circumstances for the behaviour to have had that effect on them"

What does bullying look like?

The RCN's good practice guidelines on managing bullying and harassment in the workplace (RCN, 2015) gives examples of what bullying might look like in practice for example

Bullying is: • sadistic or aggressive behaviour over a period of time • exclusion from meetings • humiliation or ridiculing • criticism in public designed to humiliate • persistent, unwarranted criticism in private • treatment of colleagues as children • changing of work responsibilities unreasonably or without justification • deliberate withholding of information to affect a colleague’s performance • constant changing of work deadlines or work guidelines.

Firm but fair or bullying and harassment?

See also the CIPD link in the box above for a table on the difference between strong  management and bullying behaviours when tackling poor performance teams on page 28.

Reports and statistics on bullying in the NHS