This page provides definitions of terms used in the RCOG/RCM undermining toolkit, as well as information about the law in relation to bullying, harassment and undermining.
Bullying and harassment
There are many definitions of bullying and harassment.
Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, or an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.
Harassment is 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.
Bullying and harassment are behaviours that make someone feel intimidated or offended. The behaviours are thus identified by the effect they have, not the intention of the perpetrator. Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act (2010) and the Northern Ireland Act (1998) for those in Northern Ireland.
Examples of bullying or harassing behaviour include:
- Spreading malicious rumours
- Unfair treatment
- Picking on someone
- Regularly undermining a competent worker
- Denying someone training or promotion opportunities
Undermining can be characterised as behaviour that has undermined professional confidence and/or self-esteem. Examples include:
- Injuring or destroying by insidious activity or imperceptible stages, sometimes tending toward a sudden dramatic effect
- Attacking by indirect, secret or underhand means
- Attempting to subvert by stealth.
Bullying, harassment and undermining can happen:
- Face to face
- By letter
- By email
- By phone
The gov.uk website gives helpful clarification on the law, stating that bullying itself isn’t against the law, but harassment is. This is when the unwanted behaviour is related to one of the following:
- Gender (including gender reassignment)
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
The ACAS publication Bullying and harassment at work acknowledges that behaviour considered bullying by one person may be considered firm management by another. Most people will agree on extreme cases of bullying and harassment, but sometimes the ‘grey’ areas cause problems:
“Bullying and harassment can often be hard to recognise – they may not be obvious to others, and may be insidious. The recipient may think ‘perhaps this is normal behaviour in this organisation’. They may be anxious that others will consider them weak, or not up to the job, if they find the actions of others intimidating. They may be accused of ‘overreacting’, and worry that they won’t be believed if they do report incidents.”
“People being bullied or harassed may sometimes appear to overreact to something that seems relatively trivial but which may be the ‘last straw’ following a series of incidents. There is often fear of retribution if they do make a complaint. Colleagues may be reluctant to come forward as witnesses, as they too may fear the consequences for themselves. They may be so relieved not to be the subject of the bully themselves that they collude with the bully as a way of avoiding attention.”