Bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment

Download Prospect’s guide on bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment in the workplace is an abuse of personal power or official authority. It can humiliate people, destroy their confidence, have a detrimental effect on their health and hit attendance and job performance. Careers may be damaged in the long term, ultimately leading to resignation.

How Prospect can help you

We seek to raise awareness of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour, to help prevent it from occurring and to advise members and representatives on how to deal with it.

A Prospect full-time officer should always be involved if it seems likely that a case will proceed to an employment tribunal.

If you’re not sure who your full-time officer is, contact our Member Contact Centre for assistance. Call 0300 600 1878 between 8.30am and 7pm from Monday to Friday, or alternatively email helpdesk@prospect.org.uk.

Members are advised to contact their local rep and/or full-time officer at the earliest opportunity.

Workplace and other legal assistance is offered at the discretion of the union, and is decided on the facts and merits of each case. For full details see Prospect’s guide to legal advice.

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Bullying can manifest itself in many obvious ways, such as shouting at staff in public and/or private, instantaneous rages, “nit-picking”, personal insults and name-calling, persistent criticism or public humiliation. There are also more subtle methods:

  • setting objectives with impossible deadlines
  • removing areas of responsibility
  • setting menial tasks
  • constantly changing working guidelines
  • ignoring or excluding an individual
  • turning down leave without good reason
  • blocking a person’s promotion.

Harassment and bullying are most often exercised by people in positions of power, such as supervisors and managers, who abuse their authority and impose their conduct upon others as a means of control.

But they may also be used by colleagues of equal status, for example because of cultural differences, or because they are men assuming a higher status over women.

They can also be used to humiliate and undermine the authority of a person of higher rank within the organisation.

Employees may suffer harassment from members of the public or customers with whom they are in contact in the course of their work. It is important that an employer’s harassment policy covers this situation.

Employers should take steps to minimise its occurrence, and assure staff that they will be supported if it does happen. Employees should ensure that they report all incidents of harassment by those they are in contact with in the course of their work.

What is harassment?

All employees have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, in a working environment free from discrimination and harassment.

Actions or behaviours that interfere with that right, and which are unwanted and offensive to the recipient, can be construed as harassment.

It is important to keep sight of this, since behaviour that is acceptable to one person may be offensive to another. Whether or not harassment is intentional, it is its effect upon the recipient that is important.

Harassment is used either to assert or to undermine power or for personal pleasure. Harassment cases that hit the headlines are usually of a sexual or racial nature, but anyone who is perceived as different can be harassed at work.

Read more on sexual harassment at work

Types of harassment

Harassing behaviour can take many forms:

  • comments, banter, jokes, insults and language related to gender, ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or reassignment, religion, age or any other personal characteristic, that is offensive to an individual or group
  • unnecessary physical touching, horseplay or assault, including sexual assault
  • suggestive remarks, gestures and innuendo, uninvited and unwanted propositions for sexual activity, leering, whistling
  • isolating colleagues, generalising or stereotyping them because of their gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, age, colour, race or ethnic origin
  • offensive or unwanted comments about dress or physical appearance that are unrelated to the requirements of an individual’s job 
  • assuming that physical disability equals mental disability – for example, speaking to a disabled person’s colleagues rather than to them, or imposing unwanted “assistance” with work
  • making assumptions about an individual’s private life
  • graffiti that is racially or sexually based or refers to an individual’s personal characteristics or private life
  • displaying offensive material, including pornographic or sexually suggestive pictures, pin-ups and calendars or racially offensive objects
  • inappropriate use of email and internet sites
  • encouraging others in any of these activities.

You may be a witness to an incident of harassment. It should be reported:

  •  if you feel harassed or offended by the behaviour
  • because we all have a role in creating a working environment free from harassment – by ensuring that our own behaviour does not cause offence, by making it clear to colleagues that harassing behaviour is unacceptable, and by supporting others who suffer harassment.

Who else can help?

Equality and Human Rights Commission
Arndale House, Arndale Centre, Manchester M4 3AQ
Tel: 0161 829 8100

End Violence Against Women
134 Southbank House, Black Prince Road, London SE1 7SJ
Tel: 07960 744 502

ACAS National (Head Office)
Euston Tower, 286 Euston Road, London NW1 3JJ
Tel: 0300 123 1100


There are strict time limits for making claims to an employment tribunal. For most types of claim, including unfair dismissal or discrimination, the process must be started within three months of the dismissal or incident occurring.  So it is extremely important that members seek advice as soon as possible.

Legal advice and assistance is offered at the union's discretion and is decided on the facts and merits of each case. See our legal advice guide for details of our services and the terms and conditions for advice.

The law is somewhat different in Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Members in these areas should contact their negotiator or Prospect's member contact centre for more information.