Workplace bullying in the UK: your comprehensive 5-step guide
Content / trigger warning
Jump to section:
- What workplace bullying actually looks like
- 5 steps to dealing with workplace bullying
- Step 1: prove it to yourself
- Step 2: find out if the bullying is illegal
- Step 3: build a paper trail
- Step 4: Raise the bullying as a grievance
- Step 5: Escalate the issue if necessary
- How to get help
Being bullied at work isn’t just stressful - it can damage your career, your self-confidence and have lasting consequences to your health. Despite this, the conventional wisdom for dealing with bullying at work is to just “ignore it” or put it down to a “personality conflict.” This kind of advice ignores serious behaviour that can often be illegal.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through a different way to think about bullying at work and how to deal with it, using systems available in every UK workplace and your rights as a worker.
What workplace bullying actually looks like
First of all, let’s confirm what bullying actually is, because many people don’t even realise that they are being bullied. Bullying can be obvious or very subtle, and can include:
- Excluding you from groups, meetings, or deliberately ignoring you
- Finding fault with everything you do
- Swinging between positive and negative behaviour towards you
- Setting you up to fail by overloading you with work or not sharing key information
- Mocking you, both alone or in front of others
Often, workplace bullying is subtle - a bully might treat you well in front of others, but act cold and judgemental in private. This often leaves people thinking that “it’s all in their heads” or that they are “being dramatic.” This fear of being wrong just adds to the distress and upset caused by the bullying, and can make you feel further isolated.
Another signal to help you understand if you are being bullied is to check how you feel - for example, signs might include:
- Feeling sick before having to go into work
- Feeling humiliated or degraded when you interact with a person
- Feeling panicky when you see a person’s name in your email inbox / calendar / messages
- Heart racing / dry mouth when you speak to the person
- Constantly worrying about how a person will react to news
- Spending hours at home worrying about your next interaction with a person
If your fight-flight instinct is being triggered by a specific person, that’s a clear signal that something isn’t right.
5 steps to dealing with workplace bullying
First of all, you can’t solve bullying by just ignoring it or by changing your own behaviour. This might be a good short-term strategy to help you cope for a while, but long term, this will have real consequences for your mental health.
Unfortunately, you’ll likely need to raise the bullying as an issue at work to get it resolved. That idea may be scary - you may be thinking “nobody will believe me,” or “I’m going to get in trouble.” That’s a totally understandable reaction - bullying is designed to make you question yourself.
Our five step process below is designed to help you build your confidence step by step before taking any action – by the time you raise your concern to anyone else, you will have solid, documented evidence to support you.
Here are the five steps to addressing workplace bullying:
- Proving it to yourself
- Finding out if the bullying is illegal
- Building a paper trail
- Raising the bullying as a grievance
- Escalating the issue if necessary
Step 1: prove to yourself that you’re being bullied
This is the most important step, because you can’t advocate for yourself until you have the confidence that something is wrong and needs to be resolved. It’s also often the hardest step, because nobody wants to believe that they are being bullied - it’s embarrassing and upsetting - and also because bullying itself can make you second guess your own feelings and your own experiences.
The key thing to do is to write out a timeline of what has happened - every single minor comment, every single time you were ignored or scoffed at, every single time you were told you made a mistake. Look at the examples of bullying listed for a guide of what you may want to include.
For each incident, write down the “who, what, where, when” – for example:
Date recorded: 13 September 2023
Date of incident: 12 September 2023
Location: Meeting room 3 - 10:15
People: Myself and Xander
Xander asked me to join him for a “quick chat” about my team’s performance. Once alone, he told me that my team wasn’t performing well and causing issues for his own team. I asked him for examples but he didn’t give any, he just said we are “causing issues again.” He then left - the whole conversation was less than 5 minutes.
Try to write down the incident as soon as possible after it happened, so the memory is fresh. You can use a simple Word doc to record this, or a platform with a timeline functionality like Valla which will keep an automatic timestamp of when you recorded each entry.
As you build up your timeline of each incident, you’ll start to see that it’s not “all in your head” - even if the incidents are small, they often build up to a picture of ongoing treatment. With the timeline, it’s also much easier to explain to friends and family members what is going on and get their outside perspective.
Step 2: find out if your bullying is illegal
After Step 1, you may be feeling more confident, but still have some lingering doubts about whether the treatment you’re experiencing is serious enough to do anything about. That’s where the labelling step comes in.
Many people are surprised to learn that the workplace bullying they’re experiencing isn’t just wrong, it’s also potentially illegal under UK law. If behaviour is serious enough that there is a law preventing it, that gives you much more confidence to raise it as an issue and ask your employer to resolve it. It also gives you much more leverage with your employer to take your request seriously, as they could be open to legal liability.
Is my workplace bullying illegal?
While “bullying” itself isn’t a legal term in UK employment law, bullying behaviour features in many different laws that protect UK workers. The specific wording of the bullying behaviour will differ per law.
Generally, bullying behaviour is illegal in UK workplaces for three reasons:
- If it’s discriminatory
- If it’s a reaction to you using a “protected” right - called a “detriment”
- If it represents a fundamental breach of contract
Rights against bullying at work related to discrimination
The Equality Act 2010 has many protections for workers who experience discrimination, and includes protection for bullying-like behaviours related to discrimination, including:
- Violating a person’s dignity
- Creating a intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Here are some of the most common rights in the Equality Act that describe bullying behaviours:
- Bullying because of a protected characteristic - Harassment under the Equality Act 2010
- Bullying because you were sexually harassed at work - Sexual harassment under the Equality Act 2010
- Bullying because you complained about discrimination at work (or helped someone else complain) - Victimisation under the Equality Act 2010
Rights against bullying at work related to detriments
There are a number of “protected rights” in UK law that your employer is not allowed to punish you for trying to use. This punishment is called a “detriment,” and includes many bullying behaviours, including:
- denying you training opportunities
- giving you harder or more mundane work
- making demeaning or humiliating comments
- highlighting insignificant issues about conduct
- not taking grievances and disciplinary issues seriously or dealing with them properly
- withholding a reference
Here are some of the most common protected rights and detriments in UK law:
- Bullying because you blew the whistle about a public issue - Employment Rights Act 1996
- Bullying because you asked to opt in (or not opt out of) the 48-hour work week - Working Time Regulations 1998
- Bullying because you raised a health and safety issue - Employment Rights Act 1996
- Bullying because you raised an issue about rest breaks and statutory holidays - Employment Rights Act 1996
- Bullying because you took part in Trade Union activities - Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
- Bullying because you raised an issue about the National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage - National Minimum Wage Act 1998
- Bullying because you asked about family leave - Employment Rights Act 1996
- Bullying because you asked for flexible work - Employment Rights Act 1996
Rights against bullying at work related to breach of contract
Finally, if you have worked over two years at a company, you have the right for your employer not to bully you out of your job. This behaviour may include:
- Refusing to pay you
- Suddenly demoting you for no reason
- Harassing or bullying you
- Making unreasonable changes to your work - for example switching you to night shift when your contract says day shift.
This is called “Constructive Unfair Dismissal” or just “Constructive Dismissal” under the Employment Rights Act 1996
Example: bullying and harassment
Let’s take an example of Harassment under the Equality Act. The Equality Act defines Harassment as:
- unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that
- violates an individual's dignity, or
- creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
While the legal text doesn’t say “bullying,” you will likely recognise those characteristics as bullying behaviour. And if you believe that the bullying behaviour is because you have one of the 9 protected characteristics, the bullying you are experiencing may be Harassment under the Equality Act. That is a powerful label to attach to what is happening to you.
Finding out if any laws apply to your situation
You can check if your own bullying situation matches any of the situations above - in addition to the links provided above, you can also use the Valla platform’s free “My Claims” feature to identify and research your claims.
Why is it so important to find out if my bullying is potentially illegal?
If you believe that your situation falls under one of these laws, you have gained two things:
- More validation that what is happening to you is wrong - it’s written in black and white!
- More leverage to resolve the issue, as most employers want to avoid any legal liability.
Step 3: build your paper trail
Not all workplace bullying incidents turn out to be potentially illegal, and that’s okay. The next step is the same either way: prepare a clear paper trail so that you can present a strong argument for your employer to resolve the issue.
How do I prove bullying to my employer?
To answer this, it’s important to understand what should happen when any worker raises any complaint to their employer. Every employer in the UK, whether public or private, has to follow a minimum set of rules called the Acas Code of Practice for Disciplinaries and Grievances to manage complaints.
When an employee raises an informal complaint (for example, mentioning it to their manager in a meeting), the employer should try to resolve the informally - for example, speaking to the people involved and trying to find a good outcome.
If the issue isn’t resolved and the employee raises a formal complaint (for example, an email or a grievance letter), the employer must:
- Acknowledge the complaint
- Hold a meeting with you to understand the complaint and ask for information
- Investigate the complaint
- Come back to you in a reasonable time with an outcome
- Allow you to appeal the outcome if you disagree with it (and investigate again)
That means that when you raise your bullying concerns to your employer, they will be obligated to investigate it. To try and get the best outcome, you want to be ready with all the information they might need to investigate. That will include:
- Your timeline of notes recording the incidents that you prepared in Step 1
- Any emails / text messages / calendar invites showing the behaviour
- The names of any other people who saw the behaviour
Ideally, you would lay all of this out in a timeline format, using the “who, what, where, when” format mentioned in Step 1. Again, you can lay all of this out in a Word document or using a platform like Valla’s timeline functionality, where you can attach evidence to individual incidents.
Step 4 - raise the bullying as a grievance
After doing Steps 1-3, you have done 90% of the work of raising a grievance - huge well done! Hopefully, you also will have built up a lot of confidence through the previous steps that what is happening to you is not okay and needs to be dealt with.
What if I think raising a grievance is pointless?
A lot of people stall at this step because they think a grievance is pointless – for example, if their managers are part of the bullying behaviour, they know a grievance wouldn’t get taken seriously and they don’t want to go through the hassle.
The grievance process is very important, especially if you found in Step 2 that there was a legal element to your bullying. To maintain your legal leverage in your bullying situation, you should go through the grievance process - that’s because a future Employment Tribunal would want to see that you exhausted all the internal grievance options before making a Tribunal claim. Skipping the grievance process could undermine the strength of a potential Tribunal claim later on.
Even if you don’t intend to make a Tribunal claim about your legal issue, you will still have more leverage with your employer if you behave as if you plan to.
Even if you don’t have a legal aspect to your situation, raising a grievance is still your right as a UK worker and you have every right to ask your employer to resolve your bullying issue.
How do I raise a grievance?
First, try raising the issue informally – usually by verbally telling your manager or someone else that you feel you are being treated badly, and giving details.
If the issue isn’t resolved there, you can raise a “formal” grievance - that sounds scary, but it’s really just an email or letter that you send your employer. Here is a guide that gives specific information about how to write and send a grievance letter - in summary, you should include:
- The date
- A summary of your complaint (for example, “I believe that i am being bullied” or “I believe that I am being harassed because of my race”)
- A summary of the events (you don’t have to include the full timeline yet)
- What you would like to happen (the person to be moved, etc.)
PLEASE NOTE - if you believe that there is a legal aspect to your bullying situation and you want to maintain your legal leverage with your employer, you will only have three months minus one day after the incident happened to take the next step in the process. This next step is called Acas Early Conciliation, and it is very important to not let any delays in the grievance process stop you from filing for Acas Early Conciliation if your deadline is approaching. Read more about the 3-month Acas deadline.
What happens after I raise the grievance?
Once you send in your grievance, your employer should be in touch to book a grievance investigation meeting with you. This is the meeting where you can bring the timeline and evidence you prepared. You can also ask if someone can come with you for support - if it’s a co-worker, union rep, or someone to support with a disability/language help, your employer has to say yes.
The ACAS Code of Practice Guide has clear guidelines for employers about how to conduct the grievance process - read this and make sure that they are following the steps. If they don’t follow it and you have a legal aspect to your case, they may have to pay extra compensation to you in a Tribunal claim (called the “Acas uplift”).
Step 5: escalate the issue if your grievance fails
In some workplaces, a grievance is all it takes. Many employers want to stop any bullying they find and will do their best to protect you and resolve the issue. If this doesn’t happen and the grievance outcome doesn’t resolve the issue, you can appeal the outcome of the grievance and your employer is obligated to follow the Acas Code of Practice to investigate that appeal.
If the grievance process fails, your options depend on what you learned in Step 2. If you found that there was a legal aspect to your situation, you have the option to escalate the issue to Acas, and then potentially the Employment Tribunal.
Acas Early Conciliation
Acas is an independent body set up to help employers and employees resolve their legal issues before they go to Employment Tribunal. To do this, they operate an Early Conciliation service that is a mandatory step before an employee can make a Tribunal claim.
Early Conciliation is free, and you can start it by going to tell.acas.org.uk and filling in a simple form. They will ask for a brief summary of your issue, and you can use the same information you provided in your grievance letter or grievance appeal letter. After you submit the form, you will get a confirmation email from Acas and will be contacted by an Acas Conciliator.
The Early Conciliator’s job is to act as a neutral third-party to help you and the employer reach an agreement, if possible. They can help coordinate a settlement between you and your employer. They will ask you what you want - this is typically compensation. If you need help figuring out what kind of settlement figure to ask for, you can use Valla’s Merits Assessment service.
While you are required to start the Early Conciliation process, neither side is required to negotiate through Acas - you and/or your employer may choose to decline the conciliation once it’s started.
If you can’t reach an agreement or either party declines Acas Early Conciliation, Acas will issue you an “Acas certificate.” You can then use this certificate to file a Tribunal claim - Tribunal claims without an Acas certificate won’t be accepted except in very narrow circumstances which aren’t typically related to bullying.
Making a Tribunal claim
If Acas Early Conciliation fails but you still want to settle with your employer, or if you want to take the case to Tribunal, the next step is to raise an Employment Tribunal claim.
If you can afford to get a lawyer involved to handle a Tribunal claim for you, that’s a good option. Typically, a law firm will charge anywhere from £200-£500 an hour for their services, and some may operate on a “no win no fee” basis for specific types of cases.
If you can’t afford to have a law firm handle the issue for you, you can raise the claim yourself. 1 out of 3 Employment Tribunal claimants have no legal representation and are self-representing. These “litigants in person” have surged in the past few years, as costs have increased for everyone. Valla is the first platform in the UK designed for litigants in person to manage their own Tribunal case and get affordable support from lawyers - you can use it for free.
How do I claim for bullying in Employment Tribunal?
You wouldn’t prove “bullying” to the Employment Tribunal, you would prove “harassment” or “victimisation” or “whistleblowing detriment” - that is, the laws that you identified in Step 2 that you believe your employer broke. This is why Step 2 was so important - it helped you understand if your bullying was potentially illegal, and gave you the specific law that you think could have been broken. This is the information that you will include in your Tribunal claim - we have much more guidance about filing your ET1 Tribunal Claim.
How do I prove bullying in Employment Tribunal?
People often think that they need “hard proof,” for example a CCTV recording or witness to prove something happened to a Tribunal. While those things certainly help, your own account of what happened counts as evidence too. The timeline and evidence that you prepared in Step 1 and Step 3 are the foundation for a Tribunal case, too. Your notes about what happened are called “contemporaneous notes” and count as evidence in a Tribunal. That’s why it’s important to record the date that you wrote the note - a Tribunal will put more weight on notes that were written “contemporaneously,” or in the moment.
Don’t attach evidence in your ET1 Tribunal Claim form - that is a summary document that lists your claims and the major events, not your full evidence. We have much more guidance about filing your ET1 Tribunal Claim.
Help and next steps
Far from being a simple “personality conflict,” workplace bullying is a serious issue and you deserve to have it taken seriously by your employer. By following the steps on this guide, you hopefully will have built confidence that your issue is real, will have identified if it has any legal aspects, and can present a solid case to your employer. If you have to escalate the issue to Acas Early Conciliation and beyond, you’re not alone - you can use Valla’s free platform, templates and legal coaching services to support you along the way.