What’s the difference between bullying and harassment?

Last updated: September 15th, 2023

First published: September 15th 2023
Last updated: September 15th 2023

In 2021, the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) together with the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) developed a new Code of Practice on dealing with bullying complaints.

The Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work (Code) updates two existing Codes of Practice that both agencies had developed separately. The HSA Code of Practice was published in 2007 while the WRC’s dated back to 2002.

The Code contains useful guidance for both employers and employees around the difference between behaviour that falls under the harassment heading and behaviour that falls under the bullying heading.

Harassment distinct from bullying

What both employers and employees must remember is that harassment is a distinct set of behaviours to bullying. An employee who has a complaint about unwanted conduct in the workplace may have grounds for a harassment claim if the unwanted behaviour is linked to any of the nine specified grounds under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015.

Repeated ill-treatment of an employee

Bullying cases on the other hand are based on regular, repeated, serious, traumatic targeted ill-treatment of a person or persons. An isolated incident of ill-treatment may be an affront to dignity at work, but, as a once off incident, is not considered to be bullying.

A bullying claim is a serious claim to make and employees should be made aware of the consequences of making a bullying claim without evidence to show the serious and repeated nature of the harm caused.

Classification of employee complaints

From an employer’s perspective, it’s important that the procedures used for processing employee complaints includes a mechanism that can identify whether an employee grievance falls under the bullying or the harassment heading.

Your anti-bullying and harassment policy should include a section on the classification of employee complaints.

Some complaints may be a general conflict scenario that require a different resolution process to a case of alleged bullying or a case of alleged harassment.

It’s vital that all employee complaints are correctly classified to ensure they are managed and resolved appropriately.

Informal resolution processes

The Code also includes further guidelines and advice on the informal resolution of complaints of bullying within the work area.

The Code reinforces that employers should progress complaints informally where possible.

A voluntary mediation process may allow the individuals concerned to resolve their issues and improve their working relationship.

The Code recommends that employers have a primary and secondary informal resolution process for dealing with bullying complaints.

Some complaints or employees may not be satisfied with an informal approach. In this scenario, a secondary informal resolution process should offer a more structured procedure that ensures that the victim knows the issue is being managed carefully.

Expert HR advice with bullying complaints

A bullying complaint is a difficult and sensitive situation for employers to handle.

Call us today on 01 8860350 for expert HR guidance on how to deal with this technical area of Irish employment law.

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