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:
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, and this is an implied term of every contract of employment.
Employees 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.Back to contents
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.Back to contents
Bullying can lead to poor work performance, and to feelings of fear, anger, powerlessness and hurt.
Some examples are:
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.Back to contents
Harassment is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of a person. Some examples are:
This list is not exhaustive. If you feel that you are being harassed in any way then contact us for confidential advice.
Back to contents
Employers have responsibilities for the health and safety of their employees. They are also responsible for any visitors to their premises such as patients, suppliers and the general public. They should ensure that staff and patients 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. 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.
Employees may also make civil claims under the Public Order and the Prevention from Harassment Acts.
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.
Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. If there is a risk to an employee’s health, the employer has a duty to take whatever precautions are practicable.
Employers should also:
Employers should not:
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:
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 below.
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.
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:
If your manager is unsympathetic, keep a record of your meeting and call us for further advice.
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.Back to contents
Employers have a duty of care for their employees. If you experience bullying by a patient or patient’s 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. 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 or speak to your local RCN representative if you believe your manager hasn’t handled the situation appropriately.Back to contents
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.Back to contents
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:
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. After completing the investigation, the investigator may decide:
If you are unhappy with the outcome, talk to your RCN representative for details of what you can do next.
If you witness any such incident:
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.Back to contents
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 in England you should also ensure that your sick pay includes your unsocial hours payments as this absence is work-related.Back to contents
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 the us if you would like to arrange an appointment with an RCN counsellor. You might also find it useful to contact your occupational health service or employee assistance programme if you have one.Back to contents
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. Talk this through with your manager and contact us for further advice.
When considering your actions, try not to be defensive. A simple discussion can often resolve the issue. As part of the 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.Back to contents
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.