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Uncovering the many guises of workplace bullying

27 April 2023
Bullying in the workplace has certainly hit the headlines lately and is unlikely to go away any time soon.  When asked to consider what amounts to bullying many still conjure up a picture of the typical playground bully. But this isn't what a bully looks like in 2023.   Here we consider the legal parameters around bullying, the many guises it can take, and how a robust culture can mitigate the risk of bullying behaviour in the workplace and its harmful consequences.  

What does bullying in the workplace look like today? 

Nicki Eyre founder of Conduct Change provides insight into the shift of what constitutes bullying behaviour in today's world - "There has been a shift away from focusing on intent and towards the impact and harm caused.  Evidence shows that in cases where the bullying has taken place over many months or even years, it can lead to trauma from which some people never fully recover".

Employers need to be aware that even when there is no intent of harm or malice, the ramifications of bullying behaviour to the work environment and individuals can be extensive.  Unless behaviour is called out, people may continue to have a lack of awareness around how their behaviour is perceived and the deep trauma it can cause, both physically and psychologically.  We all have a role to play in calling out inappropriate behaviour. 

The concept of bullying is often described as extreme behaviour such as shouting or physical abuse.  In the modern workplace bullying can take on so many different guises that such an extreme perception of bullying is often unhelpful.  Microaggressions and isolation can be more difficult to detect but can be just as damaging. In some cases more so as the recipient will often feel like they can't complain and are helpless.

Workplace bullying can be nuanced and difficult to spot, never mind tackle.  More subtle behaviours such as isolating an employee, taking credit for someone else's work or micro-management, are all examples of bullying and create a toxic work environment when delivered as part of a continual pattern of behaviours.

The legal background 

There is no specific legal definition of bullying. Acas describe it as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting;
  • an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.  

Examples could include shouting at or humiliating a colleague, excessive criticism or isolating team members.  

Bullying often goes hand in hand with harassment. Harassment under the Equality Act 2010 (the "Act") is defined as unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. This includes the protected characteristic of gender. Interestingly there are two further more specific definitions of harassment under the Act, first in relation to conduct of a sexual nature and secondly specific protection for people who have rejected or submitted to conduct of a sexual nature.  

The intent is clearly to make sure that there are no loopholes in the Act which prevent a claim being brought. 

It is also of note that the definition specifically states that there is harassment not only where the purpose of the unwanted conduct violates a person's dignity but further that if the effect of the unwanted conduct impacts on dignity there is a claim. There is no requirement to prove someone intended the conduct if it had the effect outlined in the Act. This adds to the imperative that guidance on appropriate conduct at work is provided.

What is the impact of workplace bullying? 

As Nicki states "It drains people of confidence and self-esteem, and affects focus, memory and concentration.  Bullying behaviours therefore reduce performance and productivity in a workforce.  Over 50% of people do not report bullying at work as they perceive that it is not safe for them to speak up, and when they do, the majority of cases are not upheld and the target is most likely to leave their post.  Businesses are too quick to move towards formal processes that are not fit for purpose instead of doing everything humanly possible first".

Culture is key 

Employers who are able to create a safe psychological environment can mitigate the risk of these types of behaviours.  Considering the impact on productivity and efficiency, a zero tolerance approach where behaviour which falls below par is stamped out quickly should be a business priority.  It is essential for employers to take prompt and decisive action to promote an inclusive and supportive work environment or run the risk of allowing it to permeate and transmit throughout the organisation.

Fostering a positive workplace culture should be a top priority for employers.  It is not easy.  It takes continual effort to shape and design a culture that is healthy and allows the business - and everyone that interacts within it and with it – to thrive and prosper.  Organisations should focus on:


  • Leading from the top and setting the tone is an essential leadership capability. The standard of behaviours that leaders walk by will be the standard of behaviours that they endorse.
  • The power of the multiplier effect of positive leadership behaviour cannot be underestimated. By role-modelling the valued behaviours, leaders can elevate standards and inspire through their actions, not just by their words, and unlock commercial and human potential.  

Policies and procedures

  • Are policies fit for purpose? Do they reinforce desired behaviours or do they conflict with the values and behaviours that are espoused?  Employees should be left in no doubt about what standards are expected and what action can and should be taken when behaviour falls short. 

Education and support

  • Is the workforce trained appropriately on what amounts to bullying and harassment and what they should do if they have a concern?  Do employees know how to be courageous bystanders when they see wrongdoing? How do line mangers react when they are informed of inappropriate behaviours?  Training can be used to create a culture when it is clear that there is a zero tolerance to bullying and harassment.  

Culture Audits

Culture audits are a powerful tool to risk assess the standards of behaviours and cultural norms that are embedded across the organisation. By regularly stress-testing any potential gaps between intended, expressed and actual culture, leaders are able to proactively address the real risk of poor behaviours becoming the norm.

Bullying: What is the risk to employers? 

Bullying in any form is damaging to business.  A hostile work environment can lead to a myriad of issues for employers:

  • Increased absenteeism. Research carried out by Culture Shift showed the impact of workplace culture on absenteeism with 27% having called in sick due to problematic behaviour.
  • Reduced productivity. The Culture Shift research showed that 34 % found that workplace culture had impacted productivity.  
  • Costly legal claims.
  • A high turnover of staff and the resultant recruitment costs. 
  • High sickness absence, including long-term sick leave in relation to conditions such as stress.
  • Poor staff morale.
  • Reputational damage. One of the biggest risks to employers is the reputational damage which can be caused when poor behaviour is called out and makes headlines.  The consequences on brand including the ability to attract talent and meet wider stakeholder expectations can run deep and linger.  

Some of the claims employers may face include constructive unfair dismissal (where an employee resigns arguing that there has been a fundamental breach of their employment contract due to the treatment they have received), harassment claims under the Act and harassment claims under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Increasingly claims include personal injury elements and separate workplace stress claims. Where a complaint has been made about behaviour impacting on a person's health and safety, and a toxic work environment, whistleblowing and health and safety cases are not uncommon. This is not exhaustive.


Bullying behaviour will not always be blatantly obvious.  Employers must be alive to the less obvious forms of bullying behaviour such as microaggressions and other repeated patterns of unacceptable behaviour which can be just as damaging and are arguably even more so.  

The benefits of fostering a good workplace culture cannot be underestimated.  A positive work environment mitigates the risk of these types of behaviours and norms permeating the workplace and causing extensive damage.  

Please see our legal update Workplace culture: What does good look like? for more information on promoting a positive workplace culture.  

At DWF, we can provide:

  • Workplace culture audits to stress test organisational culture, identify potential behavioural risk exposure and develop risk-based remedial interventions that will actively mitigate culture risk.
  • Independent reviews and/or design of ethical conduct and business integrity frameworks aligned to corporate purpose, valued behaviours and regulatory compliance requirements (including ethical decision-making and ethical business scenario analysis).
  • Inclusion and diversity strategic design, development and implementation including dashboards, data and metrics, and global good practice. 
  • Tailored education programmes via Responsibility (our ESG educational programme) to embed cultural change.

If you would like further information please get in touch via the contacts below or follow this link to download our brochure.   

With thanks to workplace bullying expert Nicki Eyre founder of Conduct Change for her insightful additions to this update. 

Further Reading