Raising concerns

Bullying and harassment

This guide is designed to help people experiencing bullying and harassment at work.


Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at 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.

Bullying and harassment undermines physical and mental health, frequently resulting in poor work performance. Possible consequences include:

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

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. There is no specific legal definition but it is generally unwanted behaviour that offends, persecutes or excludes someone.

Examples of bullying

  • sadistic or aggressive behaviour over a period of time
  • excluding people from meetings for no good reason
  • humiliating or ridiculing others or 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
  • withholding support in the academic environment or workplace. 

This list is not exhaustive: remember, bullying is any behaviour that is unacceptable to you or makes you distressed.

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is unwanted conduct which is related to one of the following; age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation and is therefore unlawful. The key is that the conduct is unwanted and has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Call us on 0345 772 6100 without delay if you feel you may have experienced this and read more about discrimination here.

If you have experienced bullying, it can be difficult to decide what to do. There are several different approaches and you should consider which option you feel most comfortable with. 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.

Step 1: Talk to others

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.

Step 2: Keep a diary

If there is a problem then it is crucial to keep a detailed written record of incidents. This will clarify exactly what is happening and provides vital evidence if you decide to make a complaint. Do not write patient names and refer to any colleagues by using initials. 

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. It can also be very therapeutic to write down how you responded and how you felt at the time. If social media has been used, please also see the NMC's guidance here.

Please see an example diary below.


Mon 11/06/18

Tue 12/06/18 

Tue 12/06/18 






Ward C

Break room

At home

Who was there:






Patient x


What happened:

Handover was being given. I was repeatedly ignored by both RN FC and RN KT when I asked about a patient.

When moving a patient, I was shoved and told to 'move' by RN KT. I saw RN FC smile at this. The patient saw this and patted my hand.

I had a Facebook message from RN KT stating 'Good day at work?  Hope so'?

How I felt:

I cried in the toilets and felt isolated and angry.

I was embarrassed and felt humiliated.

Everything feels hopeless. Not sure if this will ever end.



Step 3: 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 our employers responsibilities section below. 

Step 4: Consider taking action

It can seem extremely daunting to speak out about bullying or to voice your concerns but in our experience many bullying cases can be resolved amicably by talking about it to management and following the local bullying policies. Options could include:

  • Contacting your employee assistance programme (if you have one). Often they have a free counselling service which can really help you build your confidence, enabling you to to take action.
  • Asking a trusted colleague to support you whilst you speak in confidence to your manager (sometimes a quiet word to the person will resolve the situation entirely).
  • Following your employer’s policy and talking to your line manager or another manager to talk to the person you are complaining about informally. This is often referred to as conciliation.
    If following your employers policy, ask will they use your name, when will they talk to the person and what happens next?
  • 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. Take a calm but firm approach and make a note of everything that is said, either at the time or immediately after.
  • If you have been harassed related to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation, call us without delay. You may also want to consider involving the police. Always follow your employer’s bullying and harassment policy. It is important that you call us on 0345 7726100 or contact your local RCN representative before registering your complaint or putting a formal grievance in writing. See Step 5.

Step 5: When to talk to us

In our experience, many bullying cases can be resolved amicably by talking about it to management and following the local bullying policies but please call us on 0345 7726100 if the bullying or harassment is:

  • of a highly serious nature e.g. criminal act
  • related to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation
  • ongoing, though you have tried to resolve it
  • ongoing, and you feel you cannot take any action without our support.

Also call us if you are:

  • involving the police (there are legal timescales for civil and employment tribunal harassment claims)
  • considering making a formal complaint, grievance or taking legal action
  • considering resigning
  • off sick due to bullying or harassment.

Step 6: Investigation

We will assess your case and look at your diary of events (see Step 2) and discuss the options with you. Sometimes a formal complaint will need to be made to your employer. Your employer should then investigate it thoroughly and quickly.  If you are 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.

Step 7: Results of the investigation

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.

If despite your efforts, nothing is done to stop the bullying or harassment or if it is of such a serious nature, you might consider taking legal action.

Always call us on 0345 7726100 before taking any action. Possible options include:

  • Breach of the Equality Act 2010: If the bullying includes an element of unlawful discrimination and amounts to harassment as defined the Equality Act 2010, it might be possible to bring a complaint under the Equality Act in the Employment Tribunal. The time limit in which to pursue such a complaint is 3 months less 1 day from the date the harassment occurs. Please call us for further advice in relation to time limits.
  • Constructive unfair dismissal claim: If your employer fails to deal with bullying and harassment and the implied term of mutual trust and confidence between you and your employer is fundamentally broken, a claim for constructive unfair dismissal might be an option. To claim you need to have worked for your employer for 24 months. 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. Constructive unfair dismissal cases are often very difficult to prove. Do not resign (even verbally) or take out a grievance without calling us on 0345 7726100.
  • Personal injury claim under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, your employer has a duty to protect your health and safety at work. If they fail to do this this may give rise to a work related personal injury claim.
  • Employees may also make civil claims under the Public Order Act 1986 and the Prevention from Harassment Act 1997.

If you are considering taking out a grievance, resigning or taking any legal action, call us on 0345 7726100 for advice as soon as possible.

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

Counselling can also help as seeking professional support is a positive step. Contact your occupational health service or employee assistance programme (if you have one) as often you can access a free counselling service which can really help.

The RCN also has a counselling service which is part of your membership, call us on 0345 7726100 to arrange an appointment.

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.

Best practice for employers

Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. If there is a risk to a 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 and communicate the policy and procedure to staff
  • follow guidance for NHS employers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and ACAS
  • make all staff aware of how, when and to whom non-physical and physical assaults should be reported
  • encourage staff to report incidents to the police where appropriate
  • ensure managers understand the difference between firm but good management techniques and bullying behaviour
  • 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 and offer mediation services to both parties if appropriate.

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

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

On rare occasions, a high profile case might mean that members of the public also get involved and want to express their views via social media or outside a workplace. This can be very intimidating but your employer is under clear duties to protect you from harm and harassment at work. See the ‘employer’s responsibilities' section and call us on 0345 772 6100 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 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. 

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

  • keep a record by keeping all text messages or by taking screen shots and note this in your diary see our 'What to do' section above
  • not respond
  • 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
  • see your employer's policy and our ‘What to do next’ section above. 

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 at work, 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. Call us on 0345 7726100 if you are in dispute with your employer about your sick pay or if you need support. Our counselling team or peer support group may also be able to help.

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 here.

If you witness any such incident:

  • keep a record of what you have seen, you may wish to use our bullying diary above
  • 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 here.

Bullying, harassment and stress

Discipline and dismissal



Healthy workplace healthy you

Health and safety concerns

Personal injury


Third party sexual harassment

Violence in the workplace

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.

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.

Need more help?

The easiest way to get in touch with us is online 7 days a week. We will get back to you within 24 hours. 
To Live Chat with us, just log in via our Get help page - we are usually available until 8pm on weekdays and 3.30pm on weekends.
If your enquiry is urgent or you need to speak to the advice team, call us on 0345 772 6100, 9am-5pm (weekdays) and 9am-4pm (weekends).

Page last updated - 05/01/2021