Worrying number of employees experience bullying and harassment in the workplace: What can HR teams do to help?

The issue of bullying and harassment in the workplace has reached an alarming threshold, with a striking 40% of employees revealing they’ve faced such challenges. This significant statistic, drawn from a comprehensive survey by the law firm Wright Hassall, highlights the pervasive nature of the problem.

In this article, we will discuss the implications of such widespread workplace misconduct, and explore potential solutions.

Defining the issue: Bullying Vs harassment

Workplace bullying involves repeated intimidating behaviours, often due to power dynamics or personal animosities. Harassment, on the other hand, is targeted misconduct rooted in prejudices against someone’s inherent characteristics, carrying legal implications.


Bullying encompasses a range of behaviours intended to intimidate, degrade, or belittle an individual. It’s a persistent pattern that can stem from power dynamics, personal animosities, or even workplace cultures that inadvertently support such behaviour. Examples include:

  • The repeated use of derogatory language, which can create a hostile environment.
  • Manifesting aggressive behaviour, often stemming from frustration or the need to dominate.
  • Non-consenting physical contact, from unwanted pats on the back to more serious intrusions of personal space.
  • Pranks that distress the recipient, or practical jokes that cross a line of professionalism.
  • Scapegoating, where employees are wrongfully blamed for issues or problems.
  • Consistent interruptions in someone’s workflow without a clear reason.
  • Maliciously spreading rumours or sharing false information about an individual.


Harassment is more targeted, often with discriminatory undertones, rooted in prejudices against certain groups or individuals based on their inherent characteristics or beliefs. Its manifestations include:

  • Unwanted sexual advances, which can range from inappropriate comments to more overt actions.
  • Racism and ageism are discrimination or bias based on someone’s race or age.
  • Slander, where harmful misinformation about an individual is propagated.
  • Exerting undue pressure on an individual, often for personal or political gain.

Legal implications

It’s vital to emphasise the gravity of harassment – it’s not just detrimental to workplace morale but is legally actionable, and perpetrators can face serious legal consequences.

The role of gender and seniority 

Gender dynamics

Gender plays a pronounced role in workplace bullying and harassment. Women face these challenges at disproportionately higher rates than their male counterparts.

The differences in reporting also highlight a significant gender gap. Women are 60% more likely to report harassment to HR than men, pointing towards variations in comfort levels, trust in the reporting systems, or perceived consequences of speaking out.

Impact of seniority

Seniority brings another layer to this complex issue. Employees at the beginning of their careers, primarily junior workers, are more susceptible to bullying and/or harassment. However, their likelihood to report such incidents is half compared to their senior peers.

Senior employees, with their established networks and potentially greater job security, tend to be more vocal about their experiences, underscoring the influence of workplace dynamics and hierarchies on reporting behaviours.

The legal perspective

One of the cornerstone legislations in the UK addressing workplace harassment is the Equality Act of 2010. This act specifically defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for that individual’.

Employers’ responsibilities

Employees are encouraged to first attempt to resolve the issue informally. If this isn’t successful, they should consult with their:

  • Manager
  • HR department
  • Trade union representative

Should these steps prove ineffective, they have the option to lodge a formal complaint through their employer’s grievance process. If the harassment persists even after this, they can seek legal recourse at an employment tribunal.

Protected characteristics

Under the act, individuals are granted explicit protection against discrimination based on several characteristics. These include:

  • Age
  • Disability status
  • Gender identity
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Personal belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

Addressing the issue: HR’s role

HR departments serve as the frontline defenders against workplace bullying and harassment. Their approach, ethos, and procedures can significantly influence workplace culture, setting the tone for employee interactions.

Taking reports seriously

An effective HR department recognises the gravity of every report, understanding that a diligent response can deter potential offenders and support affected employees.

Promoting whistleblowing

Encouraging a culture where employees feel comfortable coming forward is paramount. Whistleblowing mechanisms can unearth deeply embedded issues, offering a chance to rectify systemic problems.

Disciplinary preparedness

Being ready for disciplinary actions showcases a zero-tolerance stance on harassment. This not only serves as a deterrent but assures victims that misconduct will be aptly addressed.

Educational initiatives

Awareness is a potent tool. Regular training sessions and workshops on bullying and harassment can equip employees to identify and counter such behaviours.

Resource sharing

Disseminating valuable resources, like the Stalking and harassment guide from police.uk empowers employees with the knowledge, fostering a proactive approach to workplace harmony.

The importance of efficient HR management

In the evolving landscape of the modern workplace, the HR department is more than just a managerial function. It’s a guardian of employee well-being and organisational values.

Safeguarding employee well-being

A proactive HR team plays an indispensable role in ensuring a harmonious work environment, addressing grievances, and curbing negative behaviours before they escalate.

Embracing automation and efficiency

The integration of efficient software solutions can streamline routine tasks, freeing HR professionals to dedicate more time to sensitive issues. Engaging with experts, such as Phase 3 HR tech consultants, can guide organisations in implementing these tools effectively.

People-centric focus

At its core, HR’s mission is to prioritise people and their happiness. Efficient HR management ensures that, amidst the myriad tasks and responsibilities, the focus always remains on creating a fulfilling, safe, and nurturing workplace for all.

Choosing the right HR consultants

Creating safe workspaces is paramount. To ensure best practices in addressing workplace challenges, consider the expertise of Phase 3.

With our award-winning credentials in HR and Payroll technology, we’re here to elevate your HR operations.

Laura Lee image
Written by : Laura Lee

Laura’s role as Head of Marketing sees her continually looking for new opportunities to tell the world how great Phase 3 is.

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