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Bullying and harassment

A guide for RCN members who experience bullying or harassment at work.

Bullying and harassment

Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work. Bullying and harassment of any kind should not be tolerated in the workplace. It undermines physical and mental health, frequently resulting in poor work performance. For some people, it is so bad they decide to leave their job. Other possible consequences include:

  • sleeplessness
  • loss of confidence
  • loss of appetite
  • self-doubt
  • hypervigilance
  • excessive double-checking of all actions
  • inability to relax
  • inability to switch off from work.

Bullying and harassment is unacceptable and constitutes a violation of human and legal rights that can lead to criminal prosecution and civil law claims. Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe and healthy working environment for their staff, and this is an implied term of every contract of employment.

Staff also have a responsibility to ensure their behaviour does not distress colleagues. We are committed to raising awareness about this area and to encouraging employers to develop anti-harassment policies that are reviewed regularly.

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What is bullying and harassment?

It is important to realise that bullying and harassment are words that are frequently used without a shared understanding of what they mean. They are also often used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences in the definitions to reflect how these negative behaviours may manifest themselves.

Bullying can take many forms and is defined largely by its impact rather than its intent. It is generally unwanted behaviour that offends, persecutes or excludes someone. It includes treating individuals in a demeaning and unacceptable way and can be intimidating, malicious or insulting, or a misuse of power to undermine, humiliate, threaten or cause injury. 

Harassment is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of a person. It may be related to age, gender, race, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, being married or in a civil partnership, being pregnant or having a child, nationality, political opinion, gender identity, or any personal characteristic, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.

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Examples of bullying

Bullying can lead to poor work performance, and to feelings of fear, anger, powerlessness and hurt.

Some examples are:

  • sadistic or aggressive behaviour over a period of time
  • excluding people from meetings for no good reason
  • humiliating or ridiculing others
  • criticising others in public
  • cyber bullying conducted via social networking channels
  • persistent, unwarranted criticism of others in private
  • treating colleagues as if they were incompetent
  • changing work responsibilities or academic assignments unreasonably or without justification
  • regularly changing work deadlines or work guidelines without warning
  • deliberately withholding information to affect a colleague’s performance
  • witholding support in the academic or workplace environment.

This list is not exhaustive: remember, bullying is any behaviour that is unacceptable to you or makes you distressed. Contact us if you need advice on 0345 772 6100.

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Examples of harassment

Harassment is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of a person. Some examples are:    

  • repeated events or a single serious incident
  • physical abuse, such as unwanted physical contact
  • verbal abuse, such as anonymous answer phone messages, using offensive language or innuendo, telling offensive jokes, name calling or spreading malicious rumours
  • written abuse, such as letters, texts, emails or graffiti (often anonymous), and displaying offensive pictures or posters. This can encompasses cyber harassment and victimisation conducted via social networking channels
  • obvious and direct abuse, such as mimicking the effect of a disability or explicit threats
  • unseen and covert abuse, such as social isolation and non-co-operation, implicit threats, or pressure for sexual favours
  • abuse that occurs at work, or outside of work but is work-related, such as stalking that is unreciprocated or unwanted and which affects the dignity of men and women at work.

This list is not exhaustive. If you feel that you are being harassed in any way then contact us for confidential advice on 0345 772 6100.

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Your employer’s duty of care

Employers have responsibilities for the health and safety of their staff. They are also responsible for any visitors to their premises such as patients/clients, suppliers and the general public. Your employer should take reasonable steps to protect you as they have a number of different legal duties under, for example, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, the Equality Act 2010 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. They should ensure that staff and patients/clients are fully aware of the standard of conduct expected of them and of the sanctions that may follow if they do not adhere to those standards.

Possible legal action

  • Failure by employers to deal with stress and bullying-related issues may result in a breach of an employee’s contract.
  • Where bullying involves an element of unlawful discrimination the employee may bring a complaint under the Equality Act 2010.

Employees may also make civil claims under the Public Order and the Prevention from Harassment Acts.

  • If the mutual trust and confidence between the employer and employee is fundamentally broken through bullying and harassment then an employee can possibly resign and claim constructive dismissal. Although it is possible to submit a claim for constructive dismissal without taking out a grievance, we advise that you first follow your internal grievance procedure where appropriate.

Please note, constructive dismissal cases are often difficult to prove. If you are considering taking out a grievance or resigning, please contact us for advice as soon as possible.

Best practice for employers

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. If there is a risk to staff member’s health, the employer has a duty to take whatever precautions are practicable.

Employers should:

  • have a written policy on dealing with bullying and harassment at work
  • communicate the policy and procedure to staff, for example, in the staff handbook, at induction and periodically thereafter
  • follow all specific guidance for NHS employers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the further information section below. ACAS have a range of resources for employers in all sectors to promote best practice; see Bullying and harassment.

Employers should also:

  • make all staff aware of how, when and to whom non-physical and physical assaults should be reported
  • not prevent or discourage staff from reporting incidents to the police where appropriate
  • ensure managers understand the difference between firm but good management techniques and bullying behaviour
  • train managers fully in how to investigate and deal with allegations of bullying and harassment
  • investigate complaints quickly but thoroughly and assess the facts carefully
  • give victims a choice whether they wish to deal with the matter informally or formally, if bullying is proven
  • take disciplinary action against the perpetrator as is appropriate in the circumstances, or against those who make complaints with malicious intent
  • offer support to victims of bullying including counselling if necessary
  • offer mediation services to both parties if appropriate.

Employers should not:

  • ignore complaints of bullying and harassment
  • delay in dealing with complaints
  • jump to conclusions without investigating all of the facts when making decisions about whether bullying or harassment has, or has not, taken place.

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Deciding what to do

If you have experienced bullying or harassment, it can be difficult to decide what to do. There are several different approaches and you should consider which option you feel most comfortable. Consider the different feelings you are experiencing. Some people feel self-doubt and anxiety, others lose confidence and self-esteem. Confusion about your self-worth may make it difficult to:

  • recognise what is happening to you
  • feel strong enough to take action
  • know what action to take.

Direct steps

Talk to others and keep a diary. It is often helpful to talk informally to friends, family, trusted colleagues or a workplace counsellor. This is one way to grasp what is happening to you, and clarify that you have a genuine problem. If there is a problem then it is very important to keep a written record of incidents. This will clarify exactly what is happening and provides vital evidence if you decide to make a complaint. Print out a copy of the bullying diary and keep a record of all incidents. You may also need to complete an incident form if the situation relates to a patient or patient’s relative.

Write down the details as soon as possible after the event while they are still fresh in your mind, keeping the notes short and simple. Ensure your record includes dates, times, places, a clear description of what took place, names of any witnesses and whether or not you took any action. It can also be therapeutic to write down how you responded and how you felt at the time.

Check your local policies. It is always important to familiarise yourself with your employer’s policy on bullying and harassment (it may be called ‘Dignity at work’). Please also see the Best practice for employers section above.

If appropriate you may wish to speak to the person involved. It can be effective to tell the person to stop and explain that they are causing you distress. Their behaviour may be unintentional and they may stop if they are made aware of the effect it is having. Take a calm but firm approach and make a note of everything that is said, either at the time or immediately after. If you feel strong enough you may wish to do this on your own, or you can ask for help and support from a friend or your RCN representative. If you require support, please contact us on 0345 772 6100.

Involve your employer. Following your employer’s policy, you can ask your line manager or another manager to talk to the person you are complaining about informally. This is often referred to as conciliation. It is always best to ask the following questions:

  • will they use your name?
  • when will they talk to the person?
  • when can you find out what has happened?
  • what will happen if conciliation doesn’t work?
  • what steps should you take next?

If your manager is unsympathetic, keep a record of your meeting and call us for further advice on 0345 772 6100.

If the bullying and harassment continues, or if it a serious incident occurs, you can consider making a formal written complaint. If you have been harassed you may also want to consider involving the police. Always follow your employer’s bullying and harassment policy. Act promptly, as there are time limits to bring different types of legal claim. It is important that you contact us or your local RCN representative before registering your complaint or putting a formal grievance in writing.

Depending on the seriousness of the issue, you may wish to contact the police immediately. Whatever the situation, contact us if you need support on 0345 772 6100.

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Being bullied by a patient or patient’s relative

Employers have a duty of care for their employees. If you experience bullying by a patient/client or their relative you should always report the incident to your manager, complete an incident form and keep a copy. Follow the steps above to ensure that you are getting all of the support you need.

The 'Best practice for employers' section of this page outlines your employers responsibilities. If you work in the NHS, NHS Protect is part of the NHS Business Service Authority and has responsibility for the management of security in the NHS in England. It has produced a number of publications that may also assist you, such as 'Non-physical assault', which is a national framework for reporting and dealing with these types of issues, and 'Tackling violence and antisocial behaviour in the NHS'.

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) recognises that there are circumstances in which a nurse may justifiably feel the need to consider withdrawing care from a particular patient or client. These circumstances may include the threat, or perceived threat, of physical violence on the part of the patient or client. For more information please see Violence in the workplace, Refusal to treat and Duty of care.

Remember to call us on 0345 772 6100 or speak to your local RCN representative if you believe your manager hasn’t handled the situation appropriately.

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Students: being bullied whilst on placement

If you are a student on placement and you experience bullying, see your local policies and report this to your link lecturer or placement co-ordinator as soon as possible. You might also like to get support from your students’ union (the National Union of Students (NUS)). 

Students are sometimes afraid that if they make a fuss, it will prejudice the character reference they need to progress on their course. This should not be a problem if your case is dealt with properly through correct university or workplace bullying and harassment policies. The fact remains that until you do something about it, it is unlikely that the behaviour will stop. It is much better for your wellbeing to take action and to help others in the future by showing that bullying won’t be tolerated. Don’t feel you have to wait until you are at breaking point to take action. You can also contact us for further advice on 0345 772 6100.

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Once bullying and harassment has been reported

Before making a formal complaint, please call us for further support. Your complaint must be clear and objective and include full details of the harassment/bullying including:

  • the effect this is having on you and your work
  • previous attempts to resolve this informally
  • any relevant supporting information.

The investigation

Any complaint should be investigated thoroughly but swiftly. If invited to attend an interview/investigation meeting, it is important that you do so as it may influence the outcome of your case. If the date and time is not appropriate please ask if an alternative date is possible and see if you can take a representative from either the RCN or students’ union with you. Depending on your circumstances it may be appropriate to reassign you to another area or placement until the situation is resolved. It is a normal part of the investigation process to ask the parties involved not to discuss the case with other colleagues as this could influence the outcome of the investigation. You can talk to your RCN representative, counsellor or occupational health adviser. 

If you are asked to submit a written statement as part of your employer's investigation, please see our guidance on statements.

After completing the investigation, the investigator may decide:

  • there is no case to answer and further action is not justified. The reason for this decision must be made clear to you.
  • that mediation is an option and if you agree, the other party will be informed and if both parties are committed then discussions will be held to rebuild the relationship.
  • disciplinary action is appropriate, in which case there will be a disciplinary hearing.

If you are unhappy with the outcome, talk to your RCN representative about what you can do next.

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Witnessing bullying and harassment

If you witness any such incident:

  • keep a record of what you have seen, you may wish to use our bullying diary
  • always follow your employer’s bullying and harassment policy
  • where appropriate report this to your line manager, who should address the problem with the people involved.

If you feel your manager is bullying other team members, again, refer to your employer’s bullying and harassment policy and inform a senior manager if the problem persists.

If you are asked to submit a written statement as part of your employer's investigation, please see our guidance on statements.

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Bullying and harassment can often lead to sickness absence. 

If you are on sick leave from NHS employment due to work-related stress caused by bullying and harassment, and your salary has reduced to half pay or less, you may be entitled to claim NHS injury allowance. You will need to prove your current condition is wholly or mainly attributable to a work-related issue and medical support will be essential. If you are employed in the NHS you should also ensure that your sick pay includes your unsocial hours payments as this absence is work-related.

If you work outside the NHS you should be paid in accordance with your contract. Contact us if you are in dispute with your employer about your sick pay.

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Mediation and counselling

A mediator or an independent third party can sometimes help to resolve the issues. Mediation is a voluntary process that all parties must agree to. For more information about mediation please go to the ACAS website.

Counselling can also help as seeking professional support is a positive step. Contact us if you would like to arrange an appointment with an RCN counsellor on 0345 772 6100.

. You might also find it useful to contact your occupational health service or employee assistance programme if you have one.

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Accused of bullying and harassment

If you have been accused of bullying or harassment, consider the possibility that you may be at fault or that your behaviour has been perceived as bullying. 

When considering your actions, try not to be defensive. A simple discussion can often resolve the issue.

As part of any investigation process it may be necessary to separate the people involved. The aggrieved person should be supported and only moved if they wish to move. When deciding who should move, the seniority or specialism of those involved should not be part of the criteria.

If you are asked to submit a written statement as part of your employer's investigation, please see our guidance on statements.

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Keeping a diary

It’s really important to keep a written record of incidents. This will clarify exactly what is happening and provides vital evidence should you decide to make a complaint.

Write down the details as soon as possible after the event while they are still fresh in your mind keeping the notes short and simple.

It can also be therapeutic to write down how you responded and how you felt at the time.

You could use our Bullying and harassment diary or devise one of your own.

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Further information

Bullying, harassment and stress

Healthy workplace healthy you 

Health and safety concerns

Discipline and dismissal



Violence in the workplace


Personal injury

External Resources:

ACAS have a range of resources for employers and employees on their website; see Bullying and harassment.

  • In England NHS employers should follow guidance from NHS Business Service Authority’s NHS Protect. They have produced guidance on non-physical assault and tackling violence against NHS staff.
  • In Scotland NHS employers should follow guidance from NHS Scotland. To improve the experience of the NHS Scotland workforce, and to tackle the drain on NHS Scotland resources, caused by workplace bullying and harassment the Scottish Government Health Directorates commissioned the NHS Scotland Dignity at Work Project.
  • In Wales NHS employers should follow Welsh Partnership Forum guidance.
  • In Northern Ireland Health and Social Care (HSC) employees should follow regionally agreed policies on either the ‘Management of Harassment’ or the ‘Working Well Together policy’.  For members employed in independent, charitable or private organisations, employees should follow local policies and visit the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) website. Here you can view a joint Equality Commission Northern Ireland/Labour Relations Agency publication entitled Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace.
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Call the RCN on: 03457726100