Office worker
Karen Fletcher is a partner in the Employment Team at Shoosmiths LLPReuters

The House of Commons is reportedly planning to tackle bullying in Parliament with a new confidential hotline for workers who face problems and, in turn, it has stirred the debate about workplace bullying and harassment in the UK.

But what is bullying and harassment?

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as "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."

ACAS characterises bullying as "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient".

In the UK, bullying and harassment are not legal claims in their own right.

Instead, only harassment arising from a protected characteristic, such as age, sex, race, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy, religion/belief or sexual orientation, is protected.

If someone is suffering from workplace bullying or harassment unconnected with these protected characteristics, for example, due to the colour of their hair, size or lack of hair, there are no legal grounds for redress unless the employer has breached the trust and confidence in the employment relationship such that the employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal.

Health and safety legislation also requires employers to provide a safe workplace for employees.

In addition to the legal risks, employees who perceive that they are being bullied at work are less productive, have low morale and are more likely to take sickness absences. These issues can take up much management time.

Most employees who perceive that they are being bullied at work will either leave or try to resolve the matter informally. If following the informal route does not resolve the issue, the next step is to raise a grievance under the employer's grievance procedure.

If the employer fails to deal with the grievance appropriately and the bullying continues, the employee is likely to be entitled to resign and claim constructive dismissal.

Whilst workplace bullying and general harassment are not specifically covered by legislation, employers are well advised to make sure that their equality and diversity training extends beyond the obvious so that employees are fully aware of what is and isn't acceptable behaviour in the workplace.

Following the House of Commons' example and implementing a confidential hotline can help identify issues with bullying at an earlier stage. It is also advisable to have a specific anti-bullying and harassment policy to deal with how to recognise, deal with and prevent bullying and harassment.

Karen Fletcher is a partner in the Employment Team at Shoosmiths LLP