Bullying a reps' guide

  1. Introduction
  2. Right to dignity at work
  3. Definition of bullying, harassment and victimisation
  4. Bullying behaviours
  5. What is the extent of the problem?
  6. Who bullying affects and how
  7. Bullying and the law
  8. What local reps can do to address bullying complaints
  9. The role of health and safety reps
  10. Representing someone accused of bullying
  11. Representing both sides on a dispute on bullying
  12. What PCS branches and groups can do
  13. The collective approach to tackling bullying
  14. Best practice approaches for management
  15. Negotiating a bullying policy


This guide is designed to help PCS reps to tackle bullying and harassment at work, both collectively and in individual cases. It complements the advice given to members.

Many employers have nationally negotiated procedures/agreements to tackle this issue. Some are more effective than others.

Where complaints of bullying arise, members and reps should consult these policies and procedures.

Adopting a collective approach to bullying will be far more effective in the longer term than tackling individual cases as and when they arise

Adopting a collective approach to bullying will be far more effective in the longer term than tackling individual cases as and when they arise – not least because members can be very reluctant to identify bullying as a problem – they are far more likely either to be dismissed, because the bullying has a negative impact on their attendance or performance at work, or simply to look for another job and resign.

Senior PCS reps within bargaining areas should ensure that there are nationally agreed policies in place for all workplaces with PCS members.

Right to dignity at work

PCS believes that all employees have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in a working environment free from bullying, harassment or discrimination.

Any actions or behaviours that interfere with that right could be classed as bullying. Where the treatment is given because of the gender, age, disability status, colour, race, sexual orientation or religion of the recipient, it could constitute harassment.

Whether or not harassment is intentional, it is the effect upon the recipient that is important.

This guide gives definitions of bullying behaviours and outlines how PCS reps can help individual members who complain of bullying and also work to secure effective agreements and foster a working environment in which bullying is not tolerated.

Definition of bullying, harassment and victimisation

There are many manifestations of bullying and, in the same way, many possible definitions.

The one that PCS favours defines bullying as: "Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, which amounts to an abuse of power or authority, which attempts to undermine an individual or group of employees and which may cause them to suffer stress."

Harassment is now legally defined in UK discrimination law and is a specific offence.

It is generally defined as where a person (the harasser) for a reason which relates to the protected status of the victim (i.e. their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief or age), engages in unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of

  • violating the victim’s dignity, or
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him/her.

There is usually a qualifying clause in the law which says that such conduct can only be found to be harassment if, having regard to all the circumstances, including in particular the perception of the victim, it should reasonably be considered as having that effect.

There is a further legal issue in relation to harassment, in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which makes it an offence for someone to pursue “a course of conduct:

  • which amounts to harassment of another, and
  • which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.”

‘Harassment’ in this regard is not defined in the law, but it includes causing ‘alarm or distress’ and ‘a course of conduct’ is defined as conduct on ‘at least two occasions’.

Victimisation also carries a formal legal definition from discrimination legislation and we need to be careful that we use the correct terminology, especially when drawing up agreements and advising on grievances and employment tribunal applications.

Under discrimination law, you are victimised when you are treated less favourably that another person because you have undertaken what is referred to as a ‘protected act’. Examples of a ‘protected act’ include:

  • Complaining that someone has breached discrimination law, including lodging a grievance or ET complaint to that effect;
  • Assisting someone in making a complaint about a case of discrimination; and
  • Acting as a witness in such a complaint.

It can also be a protected act if someone believes that you have or will act in any of these ways.


Bullying behaviours

Bullies can be from any background, be of any race or gender, and of any grade, so it is not helpful to draw up a stereotype or profile of the bully. However, being able to identify some examples of bullying behaviour may help the rep or the member to recognise when bullying is happening.

The following are examples of bullying behaviours drawn from the Andrea Adams Trust guidance:

  • Repeatedly shouting or swearing in public or private
  • Public humiliation
  • Persistent criticism
  • Constantly undervaluing effort
  • Personal insults and name calling
  • Persecution through fear or threats
  • Dispensing unfair punishment out of the blue
  • Increasing responsibility whilst decreasing authority
  • Being overruled, ignored, marginalised or excluded
  • Setting individuals up to fail
  • Setting uncontracted tasks
  • Setting unrealistic deadlines for an increased workload
  • Removing areas of responsibility and imposing menial tasks
  • Deliberately sabotaging or impeding work performance
  • Constantly changing guidelines
  • Withholding work related information

What is the extent of the problem?

The Andrea Adams Trust reports that “statistics show that each year as many as 18.9 million working days are lost to bullying and up to a half of all stress-related illnesses are a direct result of bullying.”

The results from the PCS National Inspection Day in April 2007, using the Health and Safety Executive’s Stress Indicator Tool, highlighted the number of members reporting that they were always, often or sometimes bullied at work.

Who bullying affects and how

Bullying will often adversely affect the health of the person being bullied. Common symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • nausea
  • raised blood pressure
  • sleeplessness
  • loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • ulcers
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • tearfulness
  • irritability
  • becoming withdrawn
  • becoming aggressive
  • increased consumption of tobacco, alcohol or drugs
  • contemplation of suicide

These are very similar to the effects of long term exposure to stress.

However, bullying also affects the organisation in which it occurs. Bullying is more likely to occur in some workplaces than others. Workplaces where it is more likely are those where there is:

  • an extremely competitive environment
  • a culture of promoting oneself by putting colleagues down
  • no respect for diversity in the workplace

The adverse effects of bullying on an organisation will include:

  • an increase in absenteeism;
  • unhealthy working climate and increased conflict amongst employees;
  • reduced organisational effectiveness and performance;
  • poor customer service;
  • loss of experienced employees and increase in recruitment costs;
  • increased risk of violence at the workplace;
  • increased industrial action or tribunal claims - and therefore compensation payments and legal costs.

Bullying can also affect staff that witness it.


Bullying and the law

There is no specific legislation protecting employees from bullying at work although unions including PCS are campaigning for a Dignity At Work law.

Generally speaking, issues involving bullying will almost always be resolved more quickly and effectively through negotiation rather than trying to pursue legal action.

However, the following are examples of how the law may be used; PCS reps may want to refer to these to put pressure on management to resolve any allegations.

Health and safety legislation

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to ensure the physical & mental health, safety and welfare at work of their employees.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 obliges employers to assess the risks to health & safety to which their employees are exposed while at work, so that they can take appropriate preventative and protective measures. This applies to both physical and mental health.

Health and safety legislation also gives safety reps legal rights to investigate causes of stress and problems such as bullying and stress related ill-health in the workplace.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has issued guidance on stress and this includes references to bullying .

These are available on the HSE website. The HSE says that to reduce stress, employers should have effective systems to deal with inter-personal conflict, bullying and racial or sexual harassment. These systems should include an agreed grievance procedure and proper investigation of complaints.

The fact that the HSE refers to bullying at work in its stress guide establishes bullying as a hazard that employers must take steps to control and as a legitimate issue for trade union safety reps to take up with the employer.

In addition, so long as an employer knew or ought to have known about their obligation to protect employees against bullying, they cannot avoid liability by saying they do not condone the behaviour of particular employees.

In order to effectively the risks to staff well-being caused by bullying, employers' occupational health or health and safety policies should include advice to employees on dealing with stress, and effective reporting and recording procedures on bullying. 
Reps to can use reporting procedures to:

  • identify individuals or groups at risk
  • identify the potential sources of bullying at work
  • identify measures to reduce the risks
  • assess whether those measures are working
  • provide evidence to support complaints
  • monitor absence for ill-health or effects on work levels.

Unfair (including constructive) dismissal

If bullying behaviour leads to dismissal it may be possible to claim unfair dismissal.

Equally if the member feels that the only way he/she can deal with the bullying is to leave the job and, provided he/she has at least one year’s service at the time of leaving, he/she may be able to claim constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal.

However, this is not straightforward and it is not a course of action that PCS recommends, because the member will be without a job and constructive dismissal claims are very difficult to win.

Members are strongly advised to seek legal advice, via their local PCS workplace rep, before deciding to resign.

If approached, reps will need to contact their HQ officers, or follow the arrangements within their bargaining area for obtaining legal advice on personal cases.

Discrimination law

If harassment or bullying is the result of discrimination on grounds of sex, race, trade union activities, sexual orientation, religion or belief, age or disability it may be possible to bring a discrimination claim in the Employment Tribunal.

Again, internal grievance procedures will need to have been taken. Reps need to remember that the time limits for application to employment tribunal are not suspended during the grievance process – application to ET must be made within 3 months of the date of the act being complained of.

Once a first stage grievance letter is issued, this is extended by a further 3 months, and ET complaints cannot be lodged within 28 days of the grievance letter.

Reps need to ensure that ET complaints are submitted in good time and the tribunal then asked to stay listing the case for hearing pending the outcome of the internal process.

Protection from Harassment Act 1997

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 can also be used to deal with extreme cases of harassment at work under the criminal law.
Where harassment involves physical contact or threat of it, it may be appropriate to take civil or criminal action – e.g. for assault, indecent assault or rape.

Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, people who intentionally harass may be guilty of an offence and may face criminal charges.

If members ask for this route to be considered, reps will need to approach PCS HQ for legal support.

Advice on taking legal action

Reps should take advice from their bargaining unit, regional office or from the legal and personal case department (tel: 0113 200 5300) before considering legal action.

What local reps can do to address bullying complaints

You should be aware of any policies and procedures that your employer has put in place to address complaints of bullying or harassment. Keep up to date with any developments or changes to the policies.

If a member comes to you saying she or he has been bullied, you should:

  • treat their complaint seriously, listen sympathetically and be supportive;
  • keep what the member tells you confidential;
  • make it clear that the union will help but that it is for the member to decide what action they wish to be taken;
  • encourage the member to keep a written record of any incidents, including facts, time, date, what was said and how they felt;
  • find out whether other workers have experienced similar problems;
  • ask the member how she or he wishes to proceed;
  • support the member if she or he wishes to challenge the bully;
  • offer to represent and support the member at every stage of any action;
  • if the member wishes to make a complaint, help them do so if they need you to;
  • make sure the procedure is followed quickly and correctly.

Be aware of time limits within the employer’s procedure and for employment tribunals. PCS does not condone bullying, but all members have the right to representation and to a fair investigation of any allegation.

The role of health and safety reps

Safety reps have specific legal rights, which are relevant to tackling bullying. These include:

  • the right to investigate potential hazards
  • the right to inspect the workplace and talk to members in confidence
  • the right to take up health & safety complaints of members
  • the right to be consulted about health & safety matters
  • the right to health & safety information from the employer
  • the right to inspect health and safety documents held by the employer.

These rights can be used to investigate sources of stress such as bullying and to ensure there is a strategy to deal with them. Local union reps and safety reps should liaise and consult about the best way to deal with bullying in the workplace.

Representing someone accused of bullying

Members may also be accused of bullying and they are equally entitled to representation.

Reps approached to assist someone accused of bullying will also need to understand the employer’s procedure and how any investigation will be carried out.

Do not take sides – your role is to ensure that the accused member is dealt with fairly and, if found to have been guilty of bullying, any mitigating circumstances, such as increased pressures to deliver excessive workloads from insufficient resources and lack of adequate person management skill training, are identified as part of any disciplinary process.

The member should be advised to accept counselling and training on appropriate behaviour if the complaint is upheld.

Representing both sides on a dispute on bullying

Where PCS is asked to represent both parties to a complaint, they should have separate representation. The representatives should be of similar levels of seniority and experience.

Witnesses may also request representation during questioning.

You should make sure that both parties feel that the representation arrangements are fair and even-handed. In case of difficulties, reps should contact their group, regional centre or bargaining unit for advice.

What PCS branches and groups can do

Some employers will try to avoid the issue of bullying altogether – as if by refusing to recognise that there is any problem it will go away.

This is not the case and, as shown above, there are a variety of legal duties on employers that mean that they have to address the issues, at least to discover whether there is a problem and to check whether any existing control mechanisms are effective.

Groups and Branches are ideally placed to negotiate and campaign to tackle the problem in the workplace.

By ensuring that the issue is given a high profile within the workplace, you can ensure that it is more difficult for the employer to ignore the issues and members will be encouraged to report incidents, knowing that they will be supported.

Groups and Branches could consider the following actions:

  • you could carry out a survey, on your own or jointly with management, to assess the extent of any problem. The HSE’s Stress Management Tools include sections on relationships at work, which incorporates bullying indicators and, being an independently developed survey and analysis tool, it is difficult for employers to claim bias in the survey. There is also a survey tool on the Andrea Adams Trust website;
  • organise meetings so that members can raise the issue – or include a discussion at a general meeting. National Ban Bullying at Work Day (7th November, in 2007) provides a good focus for this work;
  • raise awareness among members about the problem of bullying, by using PCS and TUC material;
  • organise training for reps in your area or ask your region or group to do so; or encourage PCS reps to attend the Unionlearn courses on Tackling bullying, organised through the TUC;
  • check the policies and procedures your employer has in place. Check them against best practice guidance and negotiate new procedures if necessary

The collective approach to tackling bullying

A preventative, collective approach is generally more productive than dealing with each individual case that arises. The union and management should work together to develop strategies to eliminate workplace bullying. Joint measures could include:

  • a joint survey of the workforce, to identify risk areas and to set a benchmark against which progress can be measured;
  • a full risk assessment to meet health & safety requirements;
  • developing policy and procedures, including negotiating an appropriate complaints procedure;
  • provision of counselling, training and support mechanisms.

Arguing for a collective approach

Refer to the effects of bullying on the organisation, identified earlier in this guide, as well as the legal duties that employers have for the mental as well as physical well-being of their employees.

You can also argue that if the employer fails to deal with bullying with a corporate message from the management board, others within the management chain will see it as acceptable behaviour in the organisation.

If management dispute that there is an issue with bullying in the workplace, ask for a joint survey, which will prove the matter one way or the other.

Best practice approaches for management

Members faced with the problem of bullying need to be confident that management are willing to tackle it. This confidence requires practical commitments on the part of management such as:

  • issuing a statement to all staff that makes it clear that bullying is unacceptable behaviour, will not be tolerated and is a disciplinary offence;
  • producing a code of acceptable behaviour, which must be communicated to existing and new staff;
  • developing a formal, agreed bullying policy;
  • developing procedures for investigating and dealing specifically with bullying at work;
  • issuing a statement that confidentiality is assured for complainants and that all complaints will be taken seriously and dealt with quickly;
  • providing practical help and support to staff where a complaint is being investigated;
  • providing counselling and support for staff subject to bullying;
  • providing training for managers, personnel and trade union representatives;
  • putting in place a support system of independent volunteers (called ‘harassment advisers’ or ‘contact officers’) for staff to speak to informally;
  • monitoring and reviewing the procedures and complaints system regularly;
  • carrying out an audit or investigation to analyse the extent to which bullying is a problem. This might include looking at management style, morale, sickness levels, and incidents of stress and patterns of staff turnover.

Negotiating a bullying policy

 This might be part of an overall policy perhaps called ‘Dignity at Work’ and might contain policies on harassment, discrimination, violence and bullying.

It is important to make sure there is a separate section with clear definitions of bullying, to avoid lack of clarity.

Similarly, it is important to have a separate procedure on dealing with bullying, rather than just using the grievance or disciplinary procedures, because these may not be sufficiently flexible to deal with the problem effectively.

A policy statement should include:

  • a clear statement of commitment to eliminating bullying, signed by senior management;
  • an acknowledgement that bullying is an issue for the organisation;
  • a statement that bullying is unacceptable behaviour at work, that bullying is a disciplinary offence and that serious cases could result in dismissal, if upheld;
  • the responsibilities of supervisors and managers;
  • details of the steps that the organisation will take to address bullying, such as:
    • training managers and employees in their rights and responsibilities;
    • publicising the policy throughout the whole workforce;
    • providing a specific procedure for dealing with complaints;
    • taking prompt and effective action when incidents are reported;
    • ensuring that all complaints are dealt with sensitively and confidentially
  • a clear definition of bullying and examples of unacceptable behaviour;
  • that behaviour outside of the workplace can also be brought within the process, where it is clearly related to the working relationship;
  • state that no employee will be victimised for bringing a complaint;
  • reference to the investigative process, including timescales for actions to be completed;
  • guarantees of confidentiality for complainants; 
  • how the policy is to be implemented, monitored and reviewed.

Here we look at some of the issues in more detail:

Statement of managers' responsibilities

Managers are responsible for setting standards of behaviour in the workplace, which comply with the organisation's policies and the law. They are responsible for ensuring that these standards are met.

Statement of employees' responsibilities

All employees have a responsibility to maintain a work environment in which all staff are treated with respect. They should ensure their own conduct does not cause offence.

Procedures for publicising the policy and for education and training

All staff should be given a copy of the policy and made aware of the procedures for making a complaint or obtaining advice. Managers should be trained on their responsibilities. Ideally all staff should receive training on dealing with bullying. The policy should also be brought to the attention of contractors, clients, visitors, etc.

Contact officers

The policy might include details of independent volunteers, neither management nor union, who act as a first point of contact for someone experiencing bullying. They should receive appropriate training and have a clear statement of what their role is - and of what it is not.

Procedures for tackling bullying

Reps and members should refer to centrally negotiated procedures where they exist, and ensure they are followed in the workplace.

Informal procedure

It might be possible for the complainant to simply ask the perpetrator to stop the unacceptable behaviour, either in person or in writing. There should be provision for them to be accompanied by a representative and for their representative to speak for them. A written record of such a meeting should be kept.

Formal procedure

An employee who believes they are being bullied should make a formal complaint to the appropriate manager. This might be their immediate manager, but if this person is the bully, they should be able to go to the next most senior manager who is not involved.

There should be provision for the complainant to be accompanied by their union representative if the matter is raised in the meeting, or they should raise the complaint in writing.

The manager must then investigate the allegation, confidentially and promptly.

They should interview the complainant and alleged perpetrator separately and any witnesses. All should be entitled to have a representative present.

There must be clear time limits for each stage. These should allow for speedy resolution of a problem before it gets worse but at the same time must allow proper and fair consideration of the matter.

If the investigation results in the complaint being upheld, the manager must take prompt action to resolve the complaint, possibly by relocating the perpetrator or by taking disciplinary action.

Only in exceptional cases should the relocation of the complainant be seen as acceptable, even if it would be easier for the organisation – such actions send out the wrong message about the results of bullying complaints and can be seen as penalising the victim.

If appropriate, the alleged bully might need to be suspended or relocated pending the results of the investigation.

There should also be procedures for appeal.

If the matter becomes a disciplinary issue, the complainant should be kept informed, attend as a witness (with a representative if appropriate) and should hear the result.

Monitoring and reviewing the policy

There should be a formal procedure for monitoring the number and nature of incidents of bullying.

Depending on the availablility of equality monitoring data, it can also be helpful to identify cases by race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, age and grade of complainant and perpetrator.

There should be regular reviews of the procedure, to ensure it is working, identify any problems and to discuss results. This should usually include feedback from staff on their knowledge of and confidence in the policy.

Counselling and Employee assistance programmes

Properly trained and independent counselling can help a person who is bullied to get over the experience. It should be made clear that should they wish to seek this support, staff will not be seen as having a fault or weakness.

Employee Assistance Programmes are confidential personal counselling services, which are often provided free of charge by employers.

There are professional counselling services, which can advise on a range of work or non-work-related problems, including relationship or family matters, work related stress, bullying, financial problems, and alcohol or drug problems.

Like counselling, these programmes do not remove the causes of stress in the workplace but they can help individuals cope with the stress. They must be independent and confidential and can be useful as part of a strategy in tackling stress at work.

It may also be appropriate for the employer to fund additional external counselling appointments.

Contact officers or harassment advisers

Many employers provide these independent contacts as part of a strategy to tackle bullying. Their role is to:

  • listen to the member of staff;
  • give them information about policies and procedures; 
  • assure confidentiality; and possibly
  • accompany a member when reporting the incident to a manager.

They should not:

  • pressurise individuals to take a specific course of action;
  • take decisions about next steps - this is the member’s decision;
  • represent members in any formal action, or make a complaint on members’ behalf;
  • intervene between the complaint and alleged bully;
  • investigate whether the bullying has taken place;
  • discuss the situation with anyone else unless requested.

Where such advisers are provided, it can be helpful to have a clear protocol setting out what is appropriate for advisers to deal with and when employees should be referred to their appropriate trade union representative. 

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Updated 6 Feb 2017

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