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5. What is the law regarding undermining and bullying?

Timely and supportive feedback about poor workplace behaviour, given through informal mechanisms, can be a highly effective way of addressing concerns at an early stage.

They can be very successful and in many cases formal processes will not be needed. 

However, more persistent or serious issues may require mediation or formal complaints.  Law also exists to protect individuals and may be used in certain circumstances. If these apply to you or your organisation you will need to get expert legal advice and support from your union or defence organisation.

ACAS describes the legal position in relation to bullying, harassment and discrimination.  Below we give a very brief introduction to the law in this area with additional references:

  • In legal terms bullying in itself isn’t against the law.  However, harassment (bullying in relation to a protected characteristic) and discrimination (being treated unfairly because of a protected characteristic) are illegal.
  • The law on harassment also applies to:
    • a person being harassed because they are thought to have a certain protected characteristic when they do not
    • a person being harassed because they're linked to someone with a certain protected characteristic
    • a person who witnesses harassment because of someone else's protected characteristic and is upset by it
  • As explained by the RCS Ed, legal consequences can include:
    • Employment Tribunal (Employment Act 2010) – resources 1, 2, 3
    • Criminal Prosecution (Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, England & Wales) – resource 4
    • Civil Action (Protection from Harassment Act 1997) – resource 5
    • Health and Safety breaches (Health and Safety Act 1974) – resource 6

Whilst there will sadly be examples of bullying, harassment and discrimination within healthcare which must be addressed, it is worth noting that many examples of poor workplace behaviours arise as a result of poor workplace culture and the way people have been treated causing them to behave and react adversely to others.

Changing culture and the environment for individuals and for the whole team needs to focus on embedding good workplace behaviours and support in addition to addressing poor behaviours. It is and has been possible to embed good workplace behaviours for the team but it can take time and perseverance for all involved and needs to be multidisciplinary.

We would encourage everyone to explore how to create positive workplace cultures in which poor behaviour is managed well and resolved fairly and teams can flourish.  You may find our Module 8 "Addressing poor workplace behaviours and ‘calling it out’" helpful in addressing poor behaviours at an early stage to improve resolution and help prevent escalation.