Harassment and bullying

How to deal with cases of harassment and bullying of NEU members.

Harassment and bullying at work are totally unacceptable and require firm action by employers, employees and trade unions. 

It can result in difficult working conditions, undermine health and safety, and produce feelings of isolation, despair and even fear. In extreme circumstances it can lead to school staff leaving a workplace or even leaving the profession altogether. 

The NEU takes harassment and bullying at work very seriously, both as an equality and a health and safety issue for staff and pupils. The NEU’s code of professional conduct for members deems it to be unprofessional conduct: “Members should not discriminate against, harass or make any discriminatory or offensive remarks against others, including in particular, colleagues and pupils, on grounds of race, nationality, colour, ethnic or national origin, disability, gender, sex, marital status, transgender status, sexual orientation, or religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief; and further, members should not harass, discriminate or make discriminatory remarks against others on grounds of age, class, caring responsibilities or other status or personal characteristic in circumstances in which such discrimination may objectively be considered unfair.”

Bullying is a form of indiscriminate harassment, not necessarily linked to any of the above factors, but equally unacceptable. This document will be of value to school representatives, safety reps and local officers. Harassment and bullying of school staff can be tackled effectively with NEU support and solidarity among staff. A strong NEU presence in schools, together with co-operation between unions, is the key to securing a supportive and non-threatening working environment.

Workplace harassment and bullying policies

The NEU believes employers should develop policies and procedures, in consultation with unions, to deal with harassment and bullying of staff by colleagues, managers, pupils and parents.

It believes workplace harassment and bullying policies should:

  • prohibit harassment and bullying.
  • contain clear definitions of what constitutes harassment and bullying.
  • explain how issues can be raised by individual employees and what will happen.
  • encourage reporting of all incidents and make staff aware of their entitlements and rights.
  • set out the responsibility of managers and employers to address the issue.
  • explain what support is available to staff who feel they are being harassed or bullied.
  • make links where appropriate to whole school policies on equality.

The union has prepared a model harassment and bullying policy with an accompanying checklist to assist in negotiations and to ascertain if an employer’s policy is acceptable.

Harassment and bullying model policy

The aim of this model policy on harassment and bullying is to provide a framework that schools can adopt to prevent and tackle harassment and bullying and covers key definitions and the legal framework.

Common features of harassment and bullying

In many cases, the behaviour of the alleged harasser or bully may not be easily linked to any specific factors and may appear to be completely arbitrary. It may, in such cases, derive from the relationship between the two people involved. Abuse of power is normally a significant element. Harassment or bullying by pupils or colleagues may be motivated by forms of prejudice such as sexism, racism, ageism, disablism or by homophobia, biphobia or transphobia.

Staff may experience harassment and bullying from colleagues, governors, parents or from pupils. In practice, forms of harassment and bullying may overlap.

A common feature of all harassment and bullying is that it is unwanted by the person subject to those actions. Some forms of harassment are perceived by staff to be difficult to challenge and harder to report because of the acceptance of some forms of bullying behaviour as ‘normal’, such as sexual harassment of female staff by pupils.

For those who are harassed and bullied, the result may be stress which can involve anxiety, depression or illness. Harassment and bullying can affect work performance and cause absence from work. They can have direct impact upon a person’s mental and physical wellbeing and a detrimental impact on their ability to fulfil their potential.

What is harassment?

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment in relation to protected characteristics is unlawful, and employees can take a case to an employment tribunal if they experience harassment in the workplace which has not been resolved by their employer.

The Act 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].”

The protected characteristics covered by the Equality Act are age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. There are a variety of reasons why a person may be subjected to harassment including class, cultural or language differences, and membership or non-membership of a trade union, but only the protected characteristics are covered by the Equality Act.

Harassment can cause a person to feel threatened, humiliated or patronised. Such behaviour can interfere with the person's work performance, undermine job security and create a threatening or intimidating working or learning environment.

Whether harassment is intentional or unintentional, the key feature is its effect on the person rather than the motive of the perpetrator.

Harassment can take many forms. These include:

  • the display or distribution of offensive material, graffiti or badges.
  • non-verbal abuse such as offensive gestures and body language.
  • inappropriate comments about someone's appearance.
  • intrusive questioning about someone's private life.
  • verbal abuse such as suggestive remarks, ‘jokes’ and name calling.
  • physical contact such as unnecessary touching.
  • threatened or actual physical abuse or attack.

In extreme cases, such as stalking, assault, rape, incitement to racial hatred or homophobic hate crime, harassment may constitute a serious criminal offence.

Freedom of expression may sometimes be used as a defence to allegations of harassment. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right and employers should recognise that workers have the right to express their religious, political and philosophical beliefs in the workplace within limits. Freedom of expression can never be used as justification for making statements/comments which discriminate against or harass, or incite violence or hatred against other people or groups, particularly by reference to their protected characteristics.

Employers may seek to prevent or ameliorate conflict in the workplace by adopting a code of conduct which includes how workers should approach the discussion of religious, political and philosophical beliefs at work. This could include:

  • outlining the importance of treating colleagues with respect.
  • an expectation for employees to behave in line with the values of the organisation.
  • examples of when it might not be considered appropriate to discuss personal views with colleagues.
  • advice on how much a worker might share about their personal views, being particularly careful of any power imbalance, e.g., between a newly qualified teacher (NQT) and a member of the school leadership team (SLT).

What is bullying?

Bullying is a form of indiscriminate harassment in which the alleged bully undermines and belittles or assaults the recipient. Bullies may seek to exploit others' perceived personal weaknesses, either because they enjoy the exercise of such power or because they are under pressure themselves, or even because they believe such behaviour is the best means of managing relationships.

Common examples of bullying by colleagues or senior managers include allocating additional workload, withholding work responsibility, changing priorities and objectives unreasonably, imposing impractical deadlines, excessive and unreasonable supervision or lesson observation, or unjustified invoking of disciplinary or capability procedures. Bullying may also involve abuse and criticism in front of colleagues and pupils.

Some bullies, particularly those in senior management roles, behave the way they do because of the intolerable pressure placed on them from outside the school, for example from Government policies or Ofsted or its Welsh equivalent, Estyn. This type of bullying is, in many cases, easier to deal with than that of the deliberate bully who believes that a bullying management style is the best way of achieving objectives. Both types of bullying are equally damaging for the recipient and neither can ever be justified.

The common feature of the different forms of behaviour which constitute harassment and bullying is that it is unwanted by the recipient. It is important, however, to distinguish between reasonable management instructions, even those which may be unwelcome, and bullying.

Misunderstandings between colleagues do sometimes occur which can lead to a perception that bullying is taking place. In some of these cases, it will be possible to resolve the issue through informal discussion between the two parties.

Where there is uncertainty as to whether a member is being bullied, the NEU harassment and bullying questionnaire can be used – it is available at the end of this document. It may help clarify whether the member is experiencing bullying behaviour. The survey can also be distributed throughout a workplace, to establish if there is a more widespread bullying problem, which would be best tackled collectively.

Addressing harassment and bullying: advice to members and school representatives

It is essential that members feel confident that their complaints will be treated seriously and sensitively. NEU school reps and safety reps who receive complaints from members are advised to seek prompt advice from the NEU AdviceLine in England on 0345 811 8111, NEU Cymru in Wales on 029 2046 5000 or NEU Northern Ireland on 028 9078 2020.

Even if school reps are unable to handle the matter themselves, they should help members find the relevant source of advice.

Employers should deal with all allegations of harassment and bullying consistently.

The first step in tackling harassment is to make it clear to the alleged harasser that the behaviour is unacceptable. The member may find it difficult to challenge the person concerned and may wish to be accompanied by an NEU representative. If the member is an NQT they may wish to seek advice from their mentor, provided that they are not the alleged bully.

If the member feels unable to speak in person to the individual concerned, the request to desist may be put in writing. The ideal outcome at this stage is for the allegedly unacceptable behaviour to stop. If the alleged bully is unwittingly behaving in an unacceptable way, as a result of being under pressure themselves, this informal approach can be successful in changing behaviour.

If the unacceptable behaviour continues, or the member wishes to take the matter further, the NEU rep is advised to contact the NEU AdviceLine, NEU Cymru or NEU Northern Ireland.

If the person who has harassed or bullied is in a senior management position, the rep should seek urgent assistance from the NEU.

The NEU should be advised immediately of any alleged retaliation leading, for example, to complaints about the member’s work or of the imposition of unreasonable workload.

The member concerned should be urged to keep notes, detailing incidents of harassment, including dates, times and witnesses to the behaviour, and the member’s response to the behaviour. If the member has been bullied via technologies (e.g., email, social media, text) they should make copies or take screenshots of this. It is advisable to keep these notes at home, rather than on the school premises.

If the member decides to make an oral or written complaint via the school’s formal process, the alleged harasser will be informed of the complaint via this process. Assistance with the process of logging a formal grievance/complaint should be sought from the NEU.

An allegation of harassment and bullying is a serious matter for the person against whom the complaint is made. Members in this position have equal rights to representation from the NEU and should contact the NEU AdviceLine, NEU Cymru or NEU Northern Ireland.

Cyberbullying in schools

Cyberbullying is the use of technologies by an individual or a group of people to deliberately and repeatedly upset someone else.

Collective complaints

Where bullying or harassment in a school is thought to be widespread, for example within a department run by senior management, workplace representatives should seek advice from the  NEU AdviceLine, NEU Cymru or NEU Northern Ireland. It is possible that such cases of bullying will be best dealt with as a collective matter.

Legal remedies

In cases involving violence, or fear of violence, employers should act quickly. All schools and employers should have effective procedures for dealing with violence. In criminal cases the employer should involve the police. Alternatively, the employer should consider civil proceedings to obtain an injunction to restrain the perpetrator/s.

The Equality Act offers protection to staff from unlawful harassment in the workplace (when it is in relation to the protected characteristics). There is no parallel legislation offering specific protection from workplace bullying but the Human Rights Act prohibits inhuman and degrading treatment which may cover indiscriminate bullying. Employers have statutory and common law duties to protect employees from mental and physical injury at work.

Harassment based on age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. If a person is experiencing unlawful harassment and they have tried to get it resolved by their employer, but this has not bought about a resolution, they might be advised to take their claim to an employment tribunal. Strict time limits apply. A claim to a tribunal about harassment must be lodged within three months of the last act of harassment taking place.

To protect any award of compensation, a complaint to a tribunal of unlawful harassment should be preceded by a written grievance.

It is important to be aware that, since 2014, any employee wishing to make a claim via an employment tribunal must notify the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) of their intention. ACAS will attempt to resolve the issues via ‘early conciliation’; if this fails, they will issue a certificate which is required in order to progress a claim through an employment tribunal.

Employers may be liable for the distress and financial loss caused by the actions of employees who harass others and should take all reasonable steps to avoid and prevent harassment from occurring. Victimisation, in the form of retaliation by the harasser to complaints made, may also amount to unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act.

Under health and safety legislation, an employer is under a duty to provide a safe system of work for employees and to take reasonable steps to prevent staff from being injured at work. Such injury can include physical or mental ill health, including depression or anxiety resulting from harassment or bullying at school. This legal duty of care is an incentive for an employer to act to prevent harassment or bullying occurring.

Employer equality policies

If schools are to reduce levels of all forms of harassment and bullying, explicit strategies are necessary. Equality policies should be consistent with the harassment and bullying policy and make it clear that harassment in relation to one or more protected characteristic, or harassment and bullying in any other form, will not be tolerated. 

They should explicitly refer to strategies to prevent such incidents and to how the employer will meet their legal duties. The NEU advises that equality policies should state that the school will take action to protect all staff from all forms of harassment.

Equality model statement

The aim of this model statement on equality is to provide a framework that schools can adopt in promoting equality of opportunity for all staff and job applicants, and to avoiding unlawful discrimination in employment.

The role of occupational health services

Some employers operate confidential self-referral systems which allow staff to receive support and counselling which may, in turn, give them the confidence to contact their union and begin to address the alleged bullying.

Such systems can also alert an employer to possible widespread bullying in a particular school.

The role of school safety committees

Strengthening NEU organisation at school level helps members and reps/safety reps deal more effectively with health and safety concerns, including harassment and bullying. Bullying can be defeated and solidarity among staff is the best way of putting in place procedures to prevent bullying.

School safety committees provide an effective forum to monitor measures taken by schools to address health and safety problems, including harassment and bullying. They can also help promote a climate in which harassment and bullying is not tolerated. Where members are concerned at levels of bullying, they can raise the issue collectively via one of the union reps on the committee. 

Issues can then be resolved either through the introduction and implementation of agreed policies or, where such procedures already exist, by seeking to ensure that they are followed. School safety committees are not a means through which individuals who have alleged that they have been bullied can seek redress. They are a collective means of preventing bullying.

Research has shown that in workplaces with joint safety committees, injury and ill health rates are 50 per cent lower than in workplaces with no such arrangements. School-based safety committees have an important role to play in creating and maintaining a safe and healthy work environment that is free from harassment and bullying.

Employers are required to establish a safety committee under regulation 9 of the Safety Committees Regulations 1977 if this is requested in writing by at least two safety reps of a recognised trade union. The request could, therefore, come from the NEU safety rep and the safety rep of another teaching union or of a support staff union. The employer then has three months in which to establish the committee, the composition of which is subject to local negotiation. There should not be more management than union representatives.

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