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How to address bullying and harassment at work

We aim to promote a working environment where all forms of harassment and bullying are regarded as unacceptable, and any incidents arising from such behaviour are not tolerated.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can have long term effects on the wellbeing and morale of not just doctors, but departments and whole organisations.

The following guidance explains what bullying, harassment and victimisation are and the forms they can take. It also emphasises that all three are prohibited by law and should not be tolerated in the workplace.

  • Definitions of harassment, bullying and victimisation

    What is harassment?

    Harassment can take many forms and may be an isolated incident or a persistent and ongoing form of abuse. Harassment may be directed towards an individual or group of individuals and may be related to their age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic.

    It may be carried out by an individual, a group of individuals or a third party (person or people who are not employees of the organisation).

    'It is any behaviour, whether verbal, non-verbal, or physical, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individuals dignity or creating an intimidating, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual or group'.
    NHS Employers - Briefing 74:, The Equality Act 2010

    Harassment may be categorised as one of the following although it is not limited to items in this list:

    • Unwanted physical-contact of any form, including inappropriate touching and assault a threat of physical-contact which causes an individual to become uncomfortable.
    • Verbal harassment including the use of foul language.
    • Offensive working environment including inappropriate posters, images, and other paraphernalia.
    • Pressure for sexual favours in return for promotion.
    • Harassment via electronic communication systems for example email.
    • Inappropriate visual leering at a person’s body to a point where an individual becomes uncomfortable or intimidated.
    • Intrusion into personal affairs, including stalking and spying.


    What is bullying?

    Bullying is where an individual or group abuses a position of power or authority over another person or persons that leaves the victim(s) feeling hurt, vulnerable, angry, or powerless.

    Bullying includes but is not limited to:

    • Aggression, including threats, shouting abuse and obscenities and shouting at people to get work done.
    • Persistent humiliation, ridicule or criticism in front of patients, colleagues or alone.
      Malicious rumours.
    • Unjustifiably changing areas of responsibility and relegating people to demeaning and inappropriate tasks.
    • Deliberately excluding the individual from discussions or decisions.
    • Aggressive communication of any form, including electronic communication


    What is unlawful victimisation?

    This occurs where a person is treated less favourably because they have asserted their rights, perhaps through making a complaint, supporting a claimant or raising a grievance.

    In some instances, it may occur as the individual is suspected to have or be considering raising a grievance. It is worth remembering that as an employee, it is within your rights to make a complaint or assist in an investigation and you are protected by law from victimisation should you do so.

    Victimisation includes but is not limited to:

    • Refusing reasonable requests such as unjustifiably blocking access to promotion.
    • Refusing access to training or continuing profession development.
    • Selecting a person for redundancy without proper justification.
    • Subjecting a person to unwarranted disciplinary action.
    • Subjecting a person to any other detriment.


  • Legal position

    Harassment is held to be discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, which replaces the following equalities legislation:

    • Equal Pay Act 1970
    • Sex Discrimination Act 1975
    • Sex Discrimination Act 1986
    • Race Relations Act 1976
    • Disability Discrimination Act 1995
    • Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003
    • Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
    • Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006
    • Equality Act 2006 Part 2
    • Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

    As well as protecting against harassment and victimisation, the Equality Act 2010 has harmonised the provisions for discrimination based on association or perception and indirect discrimination and protects against discrimination based on any of the following characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

    Harassment is also prohibited under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which makes intentional harassment a criminal offence. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it a criminal offence to pursue a course of conduct, which amounts to harassment of a person, or which causes a person to fear that violence will be used against them.

    The Protection from Harassment Act also creates a civil remedy, enabling victims to seek an injunction or damages. The penalties for a conviction are up to six months imprisonment or a fine of up to £5000.


  • Effects of harassment and bullying

    Harassment or bullying can have more than one adverse effect. It can impact on a person's working life and prevent them from doing their jobs effectively or affect their general health and well being, including their mental health.

    Bullying can also undermine self-confidence that may lead to a lack of attendance. This will affect other doctors and health professionals working within the department and can have a negative impact on the whole department’s morale and ability to work together as part of a team.


  • Responsibilities of the trust, HR, manager and employee

    Responsibilities of your Employer and Human Resources (HR) team

    It should be the responsibility of the Employer to disseminate an up-to-date policy document on harassment and bullying to all employees and to ensure that managers and supervisors are fully aware of the responsibilities to their staff and the legal consequences of any action. Training for staff must be specific and appropriate, and subject to updating as required. Complaints should be dealt with quickly, seriously and confidentially and should seriously consider regular reports to the Board to review and monitor the policy.

    Responsibilities of managers and supervisors

    Managers and Supervisors are expected to lead by example and set a good example by treating all employees with dignity and respect. Management must be on the look out for behaviour that may be construed as bullying or harassment or in any way unacceptable to an individual or group. They must work effectively and quickly to resolve any instances where harassment and bullying have been alleged and ensure there is no victimisation or recurrence after a complaint has been seen to be resolved.

    Responsibilities of you as an employee

    The individual is responsible for their own actions whilst at work. This includes not intentionally harassing or bullying anybody while at work and ensuring that people are treated with respect and dignity. It is up to the individual to report incidents immediately whether they are harassed or bullied themselves or witness it occurring to others, however insignificant they may seem.


  • Procedure

    All complaints should be taken seriously and investigated quickly. It is recognised that many people who are subject to harassment or bullying do not complain about what is happening to them. Various reasons can account for their reticence; it may be, for example, because they feel embarrassed, they do not believe anything can or will be done about it, they are worried that no one will believe them or that they will be victimised. It could just be that they do not want to get the other person into trouble. Some doctors experiencing harassment or bullying from a senior doctor or group of doctors may try to cope by regarding such behaviour as simply 'part of the job'.

    Bullying and harassment is not acceptable in any circumstances. If you experience harassment or bullying there are various ways of addressing the situation, which will depend on the incident and how you want to take it forward.


    First steps

    In the first instance it is advisable to contact your HR department to see if there is a harassment and bullying policy readily available. If you are uncomfortable contacting your HR department at this juncture you should contact your local BMA office to see if they have a policy for your Employer or ask them to contact your HR department for this reason.

    If you believe that you are being subjected to bullying or harassment, you should consider keeping a diary of events, including the date/time, what happened and who was present as this will be very helpful for any action you may want to take.


    Formal action

    Informal action is normally a very effective method of dealing with cases of bullying and harassment, but if you feel that you cannot find a resolution via this channel or you have been unsuccessful previously you may feel the need to take formal action. You should seek advice from your local BMA office before taking formal action. You may also wish to take additional advice or counselling at this stage. The following sets out a model process:

    If the incident is isolated it is important to create a written report of the event with as much detail as possible and name any witnesses, if appropriate.
    Make a verbal or written complaint sent in confidence to the HR Department. You may wish to get assistance or representation from the BMA, your line manager, if appropriate, the HR manager or a staff representative.

    An investigative process should begin, with the involvement of the HR team if required. Where a case to answer has been found, formal disciplinary procedure against the harasser or bully should be commenced, depending on the case and Employer.

    Where a possible criminal offence has been disclosed, the police should be informed of the allegation.

    If it is found there is no case, ways to improve their working life should be considered and support provided. There should be a follow up process by the HR department to ensure no victimisation has taken place and that both parties are happy with the decision.