Harassment and Bullying at Work No 1

harassment and bullying at work uk

If you manage people, these are words you probably dread. You're not alone; most managers feel the same.

This blog post is the first of a series I'm going to produce on this subject. Here, I'll cover what the law says about harassment and bullying and who is responsible for incidents that happen in your workplace.

The Law – Definitions of harassment and bullying

You've probably noticed that both terms are used interchangeably in the workplace, but there is a legal difference between them.


Harassment is a form of discrimination and defined as

‘Unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of either violating another person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person' (Equality Act 2010).

If your employee complains they're being harassed, it must be because of their ‘protected characteristic' to be unlawful. That means because of their age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion and belief, sex, or sexual orientation.


There are no laws explicitly prohibiting bullying in the UK. Instead, you're expected to implement the guidance provided by ACAS, which defines bullying as:

‘Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour which intentionally or unintentionally undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures the recipient'.

For behaviour to be bullying rather than harassment, it would not be connected to your employee's protected characteristic.

Under health and safety legislation, you must provide a safe and healthy working environment. This requires you to assess, minimise and control the workplace risks to your employees' mental health. Bullying and harassment are viewed as risks to mental health.


 When you're trying to manage incidents, the way the law approaches these situations can be confusing. Why?

Firstly, harassment doesn't need to be deliberate to be unlawful or illegal.

Your employee may not have intended to harass their colleague. But it is the impact on the recipient that is considered significant.

Secondly, the terms unwanted and unwelcome appear in the harassment definitions of the UK (and several other countries).

You probably think this means the recipient would have to tell the perpetrator or you, their manager, that they objected to the behaviour. Otherwise, how would you know?


Legally, your employee doesn't have to say they object to the behaviour for it to be considered unwanted. Conduct can be unwelcome, even if your employee submits to it, or puts up with it.

It is recognised that your employee may fail to speak up for reasons such as:

  • not knowing how to complain;
  • fear of being seen as a trouble-maker or
  • thinking they'll lose their job if they complain about someone senior to them.

Saying that you didn't know or were not told the behaviour was unwanted or unwelcome by the complainant is not a defence. To find out how to address this, download my course on ‘Harassment and Bullying at Work.

 Who is Liable – Employee or Employer?

As the employer, you're generally held responsible for acts of harassment or bullying that occur in your workplace. Legally this is called vicarious liability.

Where and when are you liable?

You can also be held liable for harassment or bullying that occurs ‘in connection with a person's employment'. Which means you're responsible for incidents that take place between employees at training courses, conferences, workplace parties, business or field trips

Your liability also extends to staff using workplace computers, phones or tablets to harass another employee.

 Personal Liability

By now, you're probably thinking how unfair this is to you! You may have a ‘rogue employee', who's harassing a colleague without your knowledge. Yet your company ends up being taken to court and held responsible.

You'll be relieved to know that individuals who harass or bully others in the workplace are, of course, directly liable for their actions.

What can you do about it?

The good news is that you can minimise your liability as an employer by taking two specific actions, which are:

  • demonstrating that you've taken all reasonable steps to prevent harassment from occurring in your workplace, and
  • showing that you've responded appropriately to resolve incidents of harassment when they have occurred

Where you can show clear evidence of this, the perpetrator alone would be held liable for their behaviour. To show you've taken all reasonable steps, download my course on ‘Harassment and Bullying at Work.

Dealing with an Employee Who is Off Sick Regularly

Dealing with an Employee

Dealing with an employee who is off sick regularly can be a headache for you. And comes with a high cost to your business. Sickness absence also affects other staff, who have to take on the missing employee’s work.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development CIPD’s March 2020 survey on Health and Well-Being at Work, the number of sick days taken by employees is around 5.8 days per employee per year.

This figure isn’t unreasonable, but as we know, you’ll probably have a high number of employees who take one, two or even no days off. And a few who will take a lot more than 5.8 days!


When Managers’ Become Afraid to Manage 

Short-term, frequent absence can be challenging to manage. Especially if your employee is always just within the parameters of your policy and you feel your options are limited.

In these situations, you may be apprehensive about managing firmly. It’s not pleasant to suggest or even imply to your employee that their sickness ‘isn’t genuine’ And there’s often a fear of a backlash against you through claims of bullying, harassment, victimisation or discrimination.

As a manager, you’ll know that if an employee thinks they’ve been ‘found out’, it’s instinctive to retaliate and defend themselves or to move the heat away from themselves and on to someone else.

Often by having a conversation early on, before it gets to that stage, it will be enough to nip the absences in the bud, if they’re not genuine.


Reducing Unplanned Absences

There are practical steps that you can take to minimise sickness absences and to improve staff rehabilitation.

A practical and transparent policy on Managing Sickness Absence is a must.

Other interventions that help are access to occupational health, employee assistance programmes, minimising workplace stress, flexible working options, improving employee engagement levels through career development, job satisfaction and good manager-staff relationships.

Practical management training that explains how to deal with sickness absence is also vital. Once managers feel confident in what to say to an employee who is off sick regularly, they are far more likely to manage short-term absences quickly, before they get out of hand.

I have produced a short video-based course, called ‘Employee who is Frequently Off Sick’ which explains step-by-step what to say to your employee in these situations.


Top Tips for the Management of Short-Term Frequent Absences

  1. A return to work interview is a great way to find out the reason for your employee’s absence and what you can do to help.

Most importantly, if you’re starting to notice a pattern of absence, to let them know that you have concerns regarding their level of absence and if appropriate, the path that lays ahead for them if it continues. Email Josie at josiehastings@gmail.com for a free copy of a Return to Work Interview form you could use.

  1. Keep records of all conversations with your employees regarding their attendance. You can refer to this as evidence, later on, should you need to start a formal process.


  1. Familiarise yourself with your company’s policy and resources for dealing with absence cases. It may feel like you need a medical, legal, and HR degree to sort it all out! This is not the case; use those around you who are qualified. If you don’t have specialists in your organisation, join HR specialist Josie Hastings’ FB group where she’ll provide answers to your questions in the group.


  1. Ask probing questions to check if there are other factors at play that would be useful to know about, such as problems with child-care, personal issues, problems at work with bullying or stress.

Remember, employees may choose to keep information from you no matter how hard you try. You can only make decisions based on what you know at the time. Download my course ‘Employee who is Frequently Off Sick’ which will help you to deal with these situations.

How to Deal with an Employee who is a Poor Performer

How to Deal with an Employee who is a poor performer

As a manager, you know it's part of your job to deal with employees who are poor performers.
They could be under-performing for any number of reasons, whether they're not meeting deadlines or monthly targets, not responding to customers quickly enough or producing shoddy work.
Whatever it is, under-performing employees can affect the morale of your whole team and undermine your business' overall goals
So how do you manage an under-performing member of staff in the most effective and impactful way? Here are some tips.

Provide regular feedback and reviews

Give your staff regular short bursts of feedback and reviews throughout the year
Most employees need and appreciate immediate feedback on how they're doing in their jobs. Regular feedback – including areas of improvement – is more motivating for employees and an effective way of boosting their performance.
Balancing out positives with negatives when giving feedback will reassure your employee that they are doing some parts of their job well. It also means they're less likely to see any meetings with you as an opportunity to be criticised.

Have the facts before you approach your employee

Before you approach your employee about a particular performance issue, make sure you have the facts. What evidence do you have that shows they're not meeting the required standard? Are you clear about your expectations when you ask for improvements

Be specific and get to the point

Approaching your staff member with concerns about their performance in a vague or unclear manner won't work, and they may misunderstand what you're saying.
Get to the point and outline your concerns about their performance, based on the evidence you prepared beforehand. Download my course ‘Employee who is a poor performer’ which shows you how to do this.

Listen to Employee Concerns

Then ask for a response. Your employee may have a reason why they aren't doing something well or meeting the required standards.
Listen to what they say and find out what their concerns are. Do they find that aspect of the job challenging? Do other members of your team have a similar issue?
Is there a personal issue that's affecting their work productivity?
Listening will help identify how you can work on the issue together and move forward.

Ask Open Questions

During your discussion, make sure you ask open questions, such as
  • ‘how do you feel that task went?'
  • ‘what part of your role do you find most challenging?'
  • ‘what part of the job do you think you're best at?'
  • ‘what would make it easier for you to do xxx (a particular task)?
These types of question open up the conversation and give your employee a chance to reflect on their own performance.
They may even recognise the areas where they are underperforming and request support around this – which saves you from having to bring it up.

Ask what you can do

By asking what you can do to help your employee perform better in their role, you show that you’re acknowledging that it is not only up to the employee to work on their under-performance.
Is there additional training or coaching you could provide? Or do you need to explain a process or procedure in more detail to them? Your employee may also have suggestions as to how they could be supported in their work. They're likely to feel more motivated and willing to work on the issue if they make the suggestion.

Agree on an action plan and review date

Make sure you gain agreement as to what your employee will do to address the performance issue. This could be a detailed action plan including dates for additional training or setting aside a time to coach them on a procedure. Or it could be setting small goals for them to work toward. Agree on a date when you will sit down with them again to review their progress, so they know this discussion will be followed up.

Evaluate the outcome and give feedback

Where an employee shows improvement and takes action, it's important to acknowledge this. Alternatively, if there is little or no improvement, it's crucial to speak with your employee as soon as possible to decide what needs to be done next. Download my course ‘Employee who is a poor performer’ which shows you how to do this
So, go ahead and follow the steps above and remember to reach out if you need help.  You can always find me on my Facebook Page or feel free to email me at josiehastings@gmail.com.
Until next time
With thanks
Josie Hastings