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Raising concerns

Bullying and harassment

Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work. Bullying and harassment in the workplace is unacceptable and employers have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment for their staff.

RCN Nursing Workforce Standards

The RCN Nursing Workforce Standards are designed to support a safe and effective nursing workforce alongside each nation’s legislation. They include guidance on workforce planning and rostering, as well as staff health, safety and wellbeing. 

Standard 12 states that the nursing workforce should be treated with dignity, respect, and enabled to raise concerns without fear of detriment, and to have these concerns responded to.

RCN's bullying and harassment diary

Use our interactive bullying diary to help you keep a note of any incidents.


It is important to contact us if you are being bullied because of your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.

Bullying and harassment is behaviour from a person or group that is unwanted, unacceptable and has a negative impact on your emotional wellbeing. There is no specific legal definition for bullying but it is generally unwanted behaviour that offends, persecutes or excludes someone. It may make you feel intimidated, offended or humiliated. The behaviour might involve a single incident or there might be a number of incidents.

The terms bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably in the workplace. Find out more about harassment and how it may be unlawful or discriminatory in our discrimination guidance.  ACAS have further information too.

Bullying and harassing behaviour can take many forms and examples of this might include:

  • humiliating or undermining someone either in private or in front of others
  • cyber bullying via social networking channels
  • persistent unwarranted criticism 
  • changing work responsibilities, deadlines or work guidelines without warning
  • shouting or insulting behaviour, and/or
  • being excluded.

It is important to contact us as soon as you can if you feel the behaviour is related to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation as this could be discrimination.

If you're being sexually harassed by a colleague, please see further below.

The impact of bullying can make it difficult to know what to do and where to turn for help. Identifying that there is a problem and its impact on you is the first step. There are several approaches you may wish to consider depending on how you feel and on the nature of the bullying or harassing behaviour.

This guidance is to help you decide what to do next, along with our problems at work checklist.

If you want advice or you feel unable to take action without our support, please read our 'when to contact us' section below for more information.

Check local policy

Your employer should have a policy on how to deal with bullying and harassment, including informal and formal action and who to go to for help. It is always important to familiarise yourself with your employer’s policy on bullying and harassment (it may be called ‘Dignity at work’ or similar). Please also see our 'employer responsibilities' section below.

Keep a diary

It is crucial to keep a detailed written record of incidents. You can use our interactive bullying and harassment diary to do this. A diary will clarify exactly what is happening and provides vital evidence if you decide to make a complaint.

Complete your diary as soon as possible after each event. If it is hard to write things down at work, keep a note on your phone and write it down later at home. We will need to see this diary of events if you wish to take further action. Do not write patient names but you can refer to colleagues by using initials.

Please see our 'when to contact us' section if you want further help.

Speak to the person directly

Consider speaking to the person directly (on your own or with a colleague present). It can be very 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. If you feel able to talk to the person, take a calm but firm approach and make a note of everything that is said, either at the time or immediately after.

Use our problems at work checklist for tips on how to approach the person and what to say.

Talk to others

It is often helpful to talk informally to friends, family, trusted colleagues or a workplace counsellor. This can help you understand what is happening to you and clarify that you have a genuine problem that needs to be addressed. You can also contact occupational health or employee assistance service for support.

You can also access our counselling service as part of your membership. Contact us to arrange an appointment.

Talk to your manager

In line with your employer’s policy, you could talk to your line manager (or another manager) and ask them to talk to the person you are complaining about informally. You could take a colleague for support. You may want to first ask if they will use your name, when will they talk to the person and what happens next. In many cases, bullying can be resolved amicably by raising with management and following local policies.


A mediator or an independent third party can sometimes help to resolve the issue(s). Mediation is a voluntary, impartial process which can help resolve workplace issues but all parties must agree to participate. ACAS has further information about mediation.

Formal action

If informal approaches haven’t worked, a formal complaint may be needed. Your employer’s policy will set out the process to follow but this normally means that a prompt and thorough investigation should be undertaken. An investigation may find that there is no case to answer, that mediation could be an option, or that disciplinary action against the perpetrator is appropriate.   

Please contact us for advice and support if you are considering making a formal complaint such as a grievance. Make sure you have read and followed our problems at work checklist, too.

In our experience, many bullying cases can be resolved amicably by talking about it to your managers and following the local policies. You can contact us at any stage if you feel you cannot take action alone or want advice.

It is important to contact us for advice and support if the bullying or harassment is:

  • related to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation as this could be discrimination under the Equality Act 2010
  • of a highly serious nature; for example, the police are involved
  • continuing although you have tried to resolve it,


  • you are considering making a formal complaint or taking legal action (follow stage 3 of our problems at work checklist if so)
  • you are considering resigning
  • you are off sick due to bullying or harassment.

Your employer is responsible for the health and safety of their staff. They have a legal duty to take reasonable steps to protect you.

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment and should:

  • have a written policy on dealing with bullying and harassment at work and communicate the policy and procedure to staff
  • encourage staff to report incidents to the police where appropriate
  • give victims a choice whether they wish to deal with the matter informally or formally, and
  • if bullying is proven, take disciplinary action against the perpetrator as appropriate in the circumstances.

An employer should also ensure that its' staff and patients/clients are fully aware of the standard of conduct expected of them. This also means that if you experience bullying from a patient/client or their relatives, you should always report the incident to your manager and complete an incident form.

Guidance for employers

Please see our bullying and harassment: good practice guidance for employers along with ACAS guidance. Our prioritising personal safety guide outlines an employer's responsibilities towards staff who are lone working in the community. 

For NHS employers see the information below for the relevant country:

In some circumstances you may need to take legal action. The type of legal action is dependent on the type of behaviour you have experienced and your employer’s response.  

Types of legal action may include a personal injury claim or a claim under the Equality Act 2010. If you are being harassed because of your age, disability, gender reassignment, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation, please contact us

If you are considering taking out a grievance, resigning or taking any legal action, please contact us for advice as soon as possible. Read our problems at work checklist also.

There are strict time limits for legal claims, so please contact us without delay. The time limits to lodge your claim could be as little as three months minus one day. Find out more in our employment tribunals and the courts guide and our personal injury guide.

The definition of sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. This behaviour must have violated someone’s dignity whether it was intended or not and created an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The behaviour does not have to be intended.

Sexual harassment can be a one-off incident or a series of incidents or ongoing behaviour. Examples of sexual harassment are described in more detail by ACAS guidance on sexual harassment but can range from making sexual remarks about someone’s appearance to sexual assault.

Employers should take reasonable steps to protect staff from sexual harassment. A person who sexually harasses someone at work is responsible for their actions, but employers still have a duty of care to look after their staff.

If you are affected, access your employer’s policy about what steps to take. If there is no policy report the incident to your manager and keep your own written record of any incidents. You can talk to a colleague or contact us if you wish to obtain advice and support before making a complaint. Your employer should take your complaint very seriously and take appropriate action.

If you experience sexual harassment from a patient, patient’s relative or a third party see our guidance on violence in in the workplace and third party sexual harassment.

Our prioritising personal safety guide outlines your rights and employer's responsibilities towards you if you are lone working in a community setting.

If you are concerned about how your employer is handling a situation of sexual assault or harassment, please contact us.

If you experience bullying by a patient/client or their relative(s) 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. Please see our guidance on third party sexual harassment if you are concerned that you have been a victim of this.

Our prioritising personal safety guide outlines your rights and employer's responsibilities towards you if you are lone working in a community setting. 

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 our advice on violence in the workplace, refusal to treat and duty of care.

See the ‘employer responsibilities' section above and contact us if you feel your safety is at risk.

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 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 act 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. 

 This can take many forms (for example via social media or messaging). It is very important to:

  • not respond
  • keep a record by keeping all text messages or by taking screen shots
  • note any incidents in your diary 
  • report it to the provider (e.g. Facebook/Twitter) and read their policies
  • block calls/messages on your phone or via the site in question, and
  • check your employer's policy

You can also see our ‘what to do next’ section above. In addition, the NMC have guidance on social media use and supplemental guidance relating to freedom of expression.

Please see our guidance violence in the workplace for what to do and who to contact. This includes verbal, physical and sexual assault.

Bullying and harassment can often lead to sickness absence because of the impact it can have on your mental health. It is important to recognise this and to seek support. Your employer may refer you to occupational health, or you may be able to access counselling support through your employer’s wellbeing scheme. Our counselling service may also be able to support you. 

If you are on long-term sickness or are having issues with your sick pay, it is important that you contact us; especially if you are in dispute with your employer about your sick pay or if you need support.

When a colleague or a manager speaks to you informally about your behaviour at work, it may be because you are unaware of its effect. Even if you think your intentions are well meaning, someone who is hurt by your actions has the right to communicate that to you and ask you to stop. Often a simple discussion at an early stage can resolve problems and identify more effective ways of communicating. 

It may also be helpful to see our section on 'employer responsibilities' above for further guidance.

If you are under investigation because of allegations of bullying or harassment, please contact us.

If you are asked to submit a written statement as part of your employer's investigation, you can read our statement writing guidance for hints and tips on writing a statement and we can check it for you

If you witness an 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 into allegations of bullying, please see our witness guide.

Relevant legislation includes:

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

The Equality Act 2010 applies in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, however, there are two laws which promote equality of opportunity for people with disabilities by banning disability discrimination and which give enforceable legal rights to people with disabilities. They are the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Special Educational Needs and Disability (NI) Order 2005. Find out more in our discrimination guide.

A confused health care worker

Problem at work?

Use our checklist to help you with next steps.

Sick leave and sick pay

Read about your sick leave and sick pay entitlements, including absence management processes.

Statements, investigations and discipline

Establish next steps and how we can help.

Page last updated - 17/06/2024