How do you spot the signs of workplace bullying?

If an employee is being bullied at work, it is likely to be a highly stressful time for them. Naturally, this makes bullying totally unacceptable in the workplace and employers have a duty of care to make their business a safe and fair working environment for all.


However, because bullying can take on many forms, it can sometimes be difficult to identify. This is especially the case if the victim feels they cannot speak up. As an employer, you should look out for certain signs that could signify when bullying is taking place.


What is workplace bullying?

Bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Examples include:


  • Spreading malicious rumours

  • Unfair treatment

  • Picking on or regularly undermining someone

  • Denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities


Although bullying itself is not against the law, harassment is under the Equality Act 2010. In many cases the two overlap, especially if the bullying is related to a ‘protected characteristic’ such as:


  • Age

  • Disability

  • Gender reassignment

  • Pregnancy and maternity

  • Race

  • Religion or belief

  • Sex

  • Sexual orientation


What are the employer’s responsibilities?

The employer has a duty of care to protect employees while they’re at work. This includes instances of bullying or harassment.


If an employee has to leave their job because of severe bullying, and the employer did nothing to prevent it, then they could claim constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal.


The best way to communicate what is and isn’t acceptable is through an anti-bullying policy and a robust disciplinary process. However, employees may be reluctant to share that they’re being bullied. These are some of the signs to look out for that may indicate that you need to take action:


Absence and staff turnover

If an employee is often absent, then there may be an underlying reason why they do not want to be at work. Bullying causes stress, which leads to health problems that could cause an employee to be absent. As with any high rate of absence, it should be investigated to get to the cause of why it keeps occurring.


If a certain team within an organisation has a high rate of staff turnover, this should be investigated too. There could be a bully within the team that is making working life unacceptable to other employees, or the problem could lie with the team as a whole.



People under stress are unable to perform as well as usual at work. A sudden dip in the quality or quantity of an employee’s work could signify a problem.


The loss of productivity should be investigated to see if the drop-off occurred at a potentially significant time, such as when the employee moved teams or started working alongside a certain individual.



If you keep hearing negative reports about an individual or team, don’t ignore it. Poor morale or perceived “personality clashes” could be symptoms of bullying, and victims may be unwilling to report it out of fear of reprisals or worry that they won’t be taken seriously.


Employers should promote a culture where complaints are seen to be acted on and investigated fully.


Outline what is unacceptable

As bullying can manifest itself in many different ways, employers should remove any grey areas and outline what is considered unacceptable workplace behaviour. Acas list the following as unacceptable behaviours that should be included in an anti-bullying policy communicated in an Employee Handbook:


  • Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone by word or behaviour

  • 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, 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


If any employee is found to be in breach of the bullying policy, then the disciplinary procedure should be followed to show that this is unacceptable. Training of staff on matters of bullying and harassment will also make the organisation’s stance clear.


Learn more

Deminos can provide advice on how to create a comprehensive anti-bullying policy and advise on what to do if a complaint has been made. Simply call one of our HR Consultants on 020 7870 1090 or email

Author David Ralph

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