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What is bullying at work?

Bullying at Work and Constructive Dismissal

Bullying at work is when someone tries to intimidate another worker, often in front of colleagues. It is usually, though not always, done to someone in a less senior position. It is similar to harassment, which is where someone's behavior is offensive. For example, making sexual comments, or abusing someone's race, religion or sexual orientation.

Bullying includes abuse, physical or verbal violence, humiliation and undermining someone's confidence. You are probably being bullied if, for example, you are:

  • constantly picked on
  • humiliated in front of colleagues
  • regularly unfairly treated
  • physically or verbally abused
  • blamed for problems caused by others
  • always given too much to do, so that you regularly fail in your work
  • regularly threatened with the sack
  • unfairly passed over for promotion or denied training opportunities

Bullying can be face-to-face, in writing, over the phone or by fax or email. I have previously blogged about some steps to take to prevent bullying at work. In this blog I explain the concept of constructive dismissal and how a bullied person can use it to his or her advantage.

You cannot make a legal claim directly about bullying, but complaints can be made under laws covering discrimination and harassment. If you are forced to resign due to bullying you may be able to make a constructive dismissal claim.

Constructive dismissal arises where you terminate your contract of employment, with or without prior notice, due to the conduct of your employer. Your employer's conduct however must have been such that it would have been reasonable for you to terminate your contract without giving notice.

If you are dismissed you may, under certain conditions, bring a claim for unfair dismissal   against your employer. If you do this and your employer accepts that there was a dismissal, it will be for your employer to show that there were fair grounds for the dismissal. Generally a dismissal is presumed to be unfair unless your employer can show substantial grounds to justify it.

If however you terminate your employment and you claim constructive dismissal under the unfair dismissals legislation (Unfair Dismissals Act 1977-2007), it will be for you to prove that your resignation was justified.

If you are found to have been unfairly dismissed you may be placed back in your job or more commonly, you may receive compensation for the loss of earnings caused by the dismissal. For additional information on constructive dismissal claims, please look at the   Citizens Information website.

I can provide some general guidelines as to what you would have to prove in a constructive dismissal case:
  1. Your employer has committed a serious breach of contract
  2. You felt forced to leave because of that breach
  3. You have not done anything to suggest that you have accepted their breach or a change in employment conditions

The reason for leaving your job must be serious - there must be a fundamental breach of your contract. Examples include:

  • a serious breach of your contract (e.g. not paying you or suddenly demoting you for no reason)
  • forcing you to accept unreasonable changes to your conditions of employment without your agreement (e.g. suddenly telling you to work in another town, or making you work night shifts when your contract is only for day work)
  • bullying, harassment or violence against you by work colleagues
  • making you work in dangerous conditions

Your employer's breach of contract may be one serious incident or the last in a series of less important incidents that are serious when taken together.

If you think you are being bullied, it is best to talk it over with someone. Sometimes what seems like bullying might not be.

For example, you might have more work to do because of a change in the way your organization is run. If you find it difficult to cope, talk to your manager or supervisor, who might be as concerned as you are. Sometimes all it takes is a change in the way you work to give you time to adjust.

Employers have a 'duty of care' to their employees and this includes dealing with bullying at work. There are measures you can take if you are being bullied. Here are a few:

  • Keep a written record or diary
  • Write down details of every incident and keep copies of any relevant documents
  • Make a formal complaint if you can't solve the problem informally. To do this you must follow your employer's grievance procedure.

Make the complaint in writing to your immediate supervisor. If he or she ignores your complaint, then go to the HR department. Eventually, you may have to go above your bosses head to that person's supervisor.

If you are being bullied in the workplace and want my advice, you can submit a question that will be handled anonymously by me and I will respond within one day.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 17, 2011