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Myths of the workplace: You can lodge a claim for bullying at a tribunal

The terms 'bullying' and 'harassment' are commonly used interchangeably in the workplace to describe behaviour that causes distress, harm, offence or humiliation. There is, however, an important difference between them in the law which means at a tribunal a claim for harassment is possible, but not for bullying per se.

Harassment has a legal definition under the Equality Act 2010 that links this kind of unwanted behaviour to 'protected characteristics'. The protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The unwanted behaviour is also defined as 'prohibited conduct' that violates someone's dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for someone. Harassment can also be unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.

Employees may complain of harassment even if the unwanted behaviour is not directed at them; it is enough for the behaviour to create an environment that they find offensive. Similarly, they needn't possess the protected characteristic to complain. For example, someone who is victimised for being gay can make a claim regardless of his or her sexual orientation.

Bullying may involve the same or similar kinds of behaviour, but it is not specifically defined in the law and has no legal relationship to protected characteristics. For this reason, it's not possible to make a direct complaint to an employment tribunal about bullying itself.

On the other hand, employers have a 'duty of care' for all their employees. If the mutual trust and confidence between employer and employee is broken - for example, through bullying at work - then an employee could resign and may be able to claim 'constructive dismissal' on the grounds of breach of contract. To do so an employee would also have to have fulfilled the relevant qualifying period of continuous employment. Employers are usually responsible in law for the acts of their workers.

Acas provides advice and guidance on Bullying and harassment and has published the pdf  Advice leaflet - Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers [164kb]. Acas also runs practical training courses which aim to give you and your organisation in-depth and practical help on dealing with Bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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