Stress, Bullying and Harassment

Discriminatory behaviour comes in many forms and can cause harm to workers through many means. Here is a overview of the three most common causes of workplace discrimination: stress, harassment and bullying.

Workplace stress

Stress in the workplace may occur as a direct result of hostility from colleagues, or as a by-product of certain tasks they are expected to perform. Either way it is the result of a worker’s day to day life becoming so emotionally overwhelming that they are left in a severe state of anxiety and depression affecting their quality of life.

In such a circumstance the employee may feel they can no longer continue in their position and may even seek medical advice as a result. It is the duty of employers to ensure their staff do not work in a condition of this kind, and that any concern an employee has can easily and comfortably be expressed without negative reactions from employers or colleagues.

Workplace harassment

Harassment is defined as behaviour towards an individual that causes them to feel victimised. It can often be hard to determine what qualifies as harassment because the experience of mistreatment is considered differently between people. What one person may believe to be harmless banter may be considered offensive by another.

The rhetoric of harassment usually involves jokes or unsympathetic comments about the protected characteristic of an employee (see Discrimination at Work). Comments of this kind are likely to be seen as offensive, and such offence can be taken by either an individual person or a group of people on the receiving end of it.

Harassment can also take on less obvious forms of treatment, such as when an employee is deliberately left out of a certain activity, making them feel humiliated, intimidated and isolated, which often leads to suffer self-esteem and mental health issues.

There are several forms of workplace harassment as detailed below:

Sexual harassment

Instances of sexual harassment at work can include making jokes of a sexual nature, the use of sexually suggestive materials or the unnecessary touching of a person.

One common form of sexual harassment involves sexual advances by an employer towards an employee in return for academic or career benefits.

Sexual harassment

Instances of sexual harassment at work can include making jokes of a sexual nature, the use of sexually suggestive materials or the unnecessary touching of a person.

One common form of sexual harassment involves sexual advances by an employer towards an employee in return for academic or career benefits.

Racial harassment

Racially motivated harassment can include acts such as discriminatory comments, jokes and gestures bearing negative racial connotations. Intimidating behaviour of this kind is often clearly recognised, but there are also a number of less easy to identify actions that incorporate racially inappropriate behaviour in more subtle forms, such as the questioning of an employee about their racial backgrounds and beliefs in a way that causes them to feel uncomfortable and/or pressured into the discussion.

Personal harassment

Actions that constitute a case of personal harassment include a lack of tolerance about or making jokes in relation to an individual’s personal appearance, age, sexuality, lifestyle or personality. Much of the law on personal harassment relates to the defence of their ‘protected characteristics’ (see Discrimination at Work).

Harassment of disabled employees

The harassment of disabled workers can involve jokes or discriminatory actions from colleagues which have the effect of either intentionally or inadvertently harming them emotionally or physically.

This is a particularly difficult area of harassment to assess as there are many inadvertent ways that employers harass disabled employees, including denying them certain opportunities due to an assumption that they will not perform efficiently. Employers should give equal opportunities to all employees unless there exists a valid reason for them to believe that such work is simply not possible for them or will endanger them health in some form.

An opposing form of discrimination to denying disabled workers equal workplace opportunities is to force them into performing tasks that they are mentally and physically unable to achieve, potentially causing them to feel harassed into doing so.

Harassment through stalking

One often unseen way that both employers and colleagues make a worker feel harassed is through actions that constitute an act of stalking. This can happen either through the literal following of a person at work or during their personal life, or by subjecting them to unwanted correspondence through indirect communication such as leaving voice mail messages, sending e-mails and contacting them through social media channels.

Requesting personal information from an employee in either a professional or private environment can also be considered a form of harassment.

Victimisation harassment

Harassment through victimisation involves hostile behaviour towards an employee who has openly complained about discrimination in the workplace or has assisted a colleague with a harassment concern in the past. As a response to providing help the employee may find themselves victimised through through harassment forms such as criticism and deliberate isolation.

Workplace bullying

Bullying is similar to harassment only that the behaviour presented is deliberately intended to harm the person on the receiving end. It is usually the most identifiable kind of workplace harassment, with common causes including an employee facing prejudice over a protected characteristic (see Discrimination in the Workplace), or because they practice a lifestyle and/or possess views that go against the outlook of the majority. Whatever the cause, bullying is completely unacceptable and always the fault of the offender(s).

Like other forms of harassment, bullying can severely affect an employee’s mental health as well as making life difficult for them at work. It is an employer’s duty to prevent any such event from occurring and investigate all claims of bullying put forward to them.

Here are several of the most common forms of workplace bullying.

Physical Bullying

Physical bullying is the most blatant form of bullying, and as the name suggests it is the act of physically intimidating someone into a position of powerlessness. Physical bullying usually involves the person(s) on the receiving end being physically weaker or less confident than their tormentors, either in a physical or mental sense, or both.

An employee suffering from physical contact in the workplace, be it direct or implied, can potentially seek legal action against both the the person(s) responsible for the aggression as well as their employers, especially if prior concerns have been raised but with no assistance provided as a result.

Verbal Bullying

Verbal bullying is a use of language to disparage an employee in order to gain control or power over them. This can deeply harm a person emotionally and lead to self-esteem issues. It is less far less easy to identify than physical bullying and may not come in the form of obviously insulting language, but instead through snide ridicule and criticism of a worker’s performance

Cyber Bullying

Workplace bullying does not have to occur in the physical surroundings of the workplace. Cyber bullying is the act of online harassment towards an individual from a work colleague either by communicating with them directly via social media and email, or posting comments, threats or pictures about the employee on websites, forums and social media, with or without their knowledge.

Cyber bullying can be particularly aggressive as it gives the bully an opportunity to say and do things they would otherwise not have the opportunity to do in person, especially inside a working environment.

Although cyber bullying does not quite encompass personal emails between employees that make private reference to a colleague, any communication of this kind involving the use of a work related platform, such as a work email address, is included.

Another form of electronic bullying is sending harmful text messages, phone calls or voice mails (see Workplace Harassment above).