Bullying, harassment and abuse at work



We may tend to think that bullying happens mostly in the playground, but sadly that is far from the whole picture. Bullying at work and within our personal life is not uncommon and now that we are thoroughly engulfed in the cyber world there are even more ways in which we can be reached and intimidated.


Harassment is another term often used interchangeably with bullying, and can be defined as unwanted conduct that affects the dignity of men and women within the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.


So what counts as bullying or harrassment?


In the workplace it can be very subtle, or profound and yet hidden from the view of others. Acas list examples of:

  •  spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone by word or behaviour (particularly on the grounds of age, race, sex, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief)
  • copying memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know
  • ridiculing or demeaning someone - picking on them or setting them up to fail
  • exclusion or victimisation
  • unfair treatment
  • overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
  • unwelcome sexual advances - touching, standing too close, the display of offensive materials, asking for sexual favours, making decisions on the basis of sexual advances being accepted or rejected
  • making threats or comments about job security without foundation
  • deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism
  • preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.


There are several different platforms that can be used for bullying which include face-to-face, letters, phone calls, emails and social media. The social platform is often used to targeting someone in a nasty, or derogatory fashion or to undermine them or their credibility, and can quickly be whipped up into a powerful “campaign” that has a devastating effect on the individual.


What is abuse?


Abusemay be physical, sexual, mental, emotional, financial or spiritual.


Physical abuse is non-accidental harm to the body. It can range from physical injuries such as hitting, pushing, wounding etc. to things such as misuse of medication, inappropriate use of restraint and dehydration/malnourishment.


Sexual abuse includes sexual assault or sexual acts that have not been consented to.  It also encompasses rape and non-contact abuse such as sexual harassment or pornography. In the workplace it commonly begins as seemingly innocent and accidental inappropriate touching, which can leave the victim wondering why they feel uncomfortable as it was “only an accident” and not maliciously or sexually meant.  This can ratchet up to quite blatant sexual touching, verbal and physical innuendos and threats. The victim can already feel ashamed and confuse that they allowed it to happen on the first place and so find it more difficult to deal with it as time goes on. There is always the possibility that the perpetrator may actually sexually or physically assault the victim even if the touching seems “low-level” initially.


Mental/emotional abuse focuses on the mental aspect of abuse such as threats, abandonment, intimidation, humiliation, deprivation of physical or emotional contact and cultural needs. It can also include verbal abuse. Psychological abuse can be harder to spot as it is often done in private, where there are no cplleagues around, and has no physical signs.


Financial abuse includes withholding entitled finances to employees or threatening to do so unless certain inappropriate requirements are met.

Spiritual abuse involves anything that damages a person’s sense of spirituality and can use religion and spirituality to excuse and justify their behaviour.


How does harassment, bullying and abuseaffect someone?


Harassment, bullying and abuse can make someone feel humiliated, anxious, scared, out of control, confused and belittled. They may wonder what they have done wrong to attract this unwanted attention, and feel unable to talk to others about it through feelings of shame and embarrassment. They may feel it is their own fault and that they should be able to deal with it themselves or even deserve it. They may feel angry and frustrated that they are not able to cope or stop the behaviour or may become frightened and demotivated. Common consequences include los of confidence and self-esteem, insecurity, absence from work and breakdown or strain in their personal relationships.In some cases people quit their jobs or even contemplate/ carry out suicide attempts.


Often victims are not even able to talk to their loved ones about it, be it their partners, friends, parents or trusted acquaintances such as priests and doctors. Whilst others may not be able to understand this, it is common for  the shame and confusion to prevent people seeking help.


There may also be a sense of fear and embarrassment about what may happen if they were to talk – would they be deemed as ridiculous, over sensitive, exaggerating or even making it up? What will happen to the perpetrator; perhaps they will be left having to face them within the workplace and things might get worse? These are very real concerns.


What can be done?


The workplace has a duty of care to each of its employees. It should have policies and procedures in place that will allow the space, time and understanding for anyone to be able to approach the appropriate person in the full knowledge that they will be cared for and kept safe. If the bullying, harassment or abuse is coming from the top then it is important to find someone you can trust to turn to. Your safety and well-being are paramount. It is useful to keep a record of what has been happening and, if possible, seek support from colleagues .You may also find it helpful to seek professional advice from a counsellor who will help you to understand your feelings and make sense of what happened to you. This process can take time and needs to be conducted in a safe environment.

There are also many informative websites that give general and legal advice as to how to seek help and what your rights are.