Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace has a negative effect on employee work performance and wellbeing.
As an employee in the public health service, you have the right to work in a safe environment, free from bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. You also have a duty to treat others with dignity and respect, and be aware of how your behaviour may affect colleagues.
Employees and managers should ensure that diversity is valued at work. This applies regardless of race, age, gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, disability, membership of the Traveller community or any other characteristic.
Dignity at Work policy for the Public Health Service (PDF, 1.1MB, 39 pages) sets out how the HSE and other public health service organisations aim to create and maintain an environment where staff are treated with dignity and respect. It sets out informal and formal procedures to deal with complaints.
The policy aims to protect employees from bullying, harassment and sexual harassment by other employees and non-employees.
- service users
- any other person you may have contact with in the course of work
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining your dignity at work. This applies whether the bullying is verbal or physical. A once-off incident of this behaviour is not considered to be bullying.
The person engaging in the bullying behaviour does not have to intend to bully. It is the effect of the behaviour on the employee concerned that is important.
Bullying can occur outside the work premises and normal working hours. This applies when the person engaging in this behaviour is at a work-related event, for example, a training course, conference, or work-related social event.
Behaviours that make a bullying pattern often include a range of behaviours, and may be spoken, written or through social media.
Examples of bullying behaviours include:
- exclusion with negative consequence
- verbal abuse or insults
- being treated less favourably than colleagues in similar roles
- belittling a person’s opinion
- disseminating malicious rumours, gossip or innuendo
- socially excluding or isolating a person within the work environment
- intrusion - pestering, spying or stalking
- intimidating or aggressive interactions
- excessive monitoring of work
- withholding information necessary for proper performance of a person's job
- repeatedly manipulating a person's job content and targets
- blaming a person for things beyond their control
- use of aggressive and obscene language
- other menacing behaviour
What isn’t bullying at work?
Apart from once-off behaviours, other ongoing behaviours which can be upsetting might not be defined as bullying. Behaviour considered bullying by one person, may be considered routine interaction by another.
The ‘reasonableness’ of behaviours must be considered, for example:
- disrespectful behaviour, whilst not ideal, is not bullying
- conflicts and disagreements do not make a bullying pattern
You may experience inappropriate behaviours and a breakdown of working relationships which are upsetting. These issues should be addressed, but they may not be of an adequate destructiveness level to be labelled as 'bullying'.
Objective criticism and corrections intended as constructive feedback, are not usually considered bullying, but intended to assist you in your work.
Examples of behaviours that are not bullying include:
- ordinary performance management
- offering constructive feedback, guidance or advice about work-related behaviour
- expressing differences of opinion strongly
- appropriate engagement on service and role change
- reasonable corrective action taken by an employer or supervisor relating to the management and direction of employees (for example managing a worker's performance/conduct/attendance, taking reasonable disciplinary actions, or assigning work)
- workplace conflict where people disagree or disregard the others’ point of view
Am I being bullied?
There may be occasions when you feel unfairly treated, hurt or disrespected at work. You may not necessarily be targeted or bullied because you feel any or all of these.
When you feel upset and vulnerable, you may not always see events clearly. Sometimes you might misinterpret reasonable behaviour and feel that it is targeted against you personally, when it could be a clash of personalities. It could also be that issues at work are upsetting you because of events in your personal life. Sometimes, though, there might be a repeated pattern of behaviour where you are being 'picked on' in an offensive manner. It’s important to think objectively about what is going on when you feel you are being treated inappropriately at work, and think about whether the behaviours are bullying or not.
Under the Dignity at Work Policy, you can speak to a support contact person if you feel you are being treated inappropriately at work. They will give you information on the policy, the definitions of bullying, and advice on other supports. You can also speak to someone in HR, your union, or in the Occupational Health Service.
What is harassment and sexual harassment?
Harassment is any form of unwanted behaviour that violates your dignity under the discriminatory grounds covered by the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015.
These grounds are gender, age, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, race, religion, disability, membership of the Traveller community.
Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted verbal, non verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that violates your dignity.
These behaviours may create an environment that is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive to you.
Harassment and sexual harassment may include acts, requests, spoken words or gestures. It may also include producing, displaying or circulating written words, pictures or other material including digitally (for example, social media).
Harassment or sexual harassment may be a single incident or repeated inappropriate behaviour, and targeted at one employee or a group of employees. The person engaging in the unwelcome behaviour does not have to intend to harass or sexually harass you. It is the effect of the behaviour on the employee concerned that is important.
Effects of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment
Bullying, harassment and sexual harassment can have a devastating effect on your health and confidence, and also have a negative impact on your work performance.
- be less productive
- be less confident in your work
- feel scared, stressed, anxious or depressed
- have your life outside of work affected
- want to stay away from work
- feel unable to trust your employer or the people you work with
- lack confidence and self-esteem in yourself and your work
- have physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, backaches, sleep problems
There can also be serious negative effects for employees who are accused, wrongly or otherwise, of bullying and harassment, and for those who witness bullying or harassment.
Workplace bullying and harassment undermines employee morale and can result in:
- stress-related illnesses
- higher turnover of staff
What to do if you feel bullied or harassed or been accused of it
If you are subjected to inappropriate behaviour which you feel may be bullying or harassment, you can talk in confidence to a support contact person, to help you decide what action to take. You can also talk to a support contact person if you have been accused of bullying or harassment. The support contact person can provide information and emotional support but will not act as your representative. They can advise you on the Dignity at Work Policy, the definitions, and the procedures. You can get details of support contact persons in your local area from your local HR department. If you are unsure how to contact your local HR department, the National HR help desk will assist you with finding contact details. Phone: 1800 444 925; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The HR help desk will also be provided with details of support contact persons in local areas and can provide you with this information.
Get more information on the role of the support contact person
You can also talk to a supervisor or manager, HR, Occupational Health Service, or your trade union representative.
Often, the best course of action if your dignity is being undermined by someone else’s behaviour, is to tell the person. Sometimes, people are unaware that their behaviour is causing offence or having a negative effect on someone else and being told that it is can bring a stop to the offensive behaviour.
If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the person, or if you did and it didn’t resolve the matter, ask a manager to approach them on your behalf. Managers asked for such help should act quickly, and try to resolve the matter informally. The manager may speak to the person directly or they may arrange a meeting with the two parties involved. They may suggest that both parties enter into mediation, a voluntary confidential process.
This approach is part of the informal procedure of the Dignity at Work Policy. If these steps don’t resolve the matter, the issues may proceed into the other stages of the procedures which are used to manage complaints under the policy.
The Dignity at Work Policy recognises that complaints are resolved most effectively when they are dealt with promptly and informally, often by the relevant line manager, where appropriate. Your complaint will be taken seriously, followed through to resolution and you won't be victimised for making a complaint.
The Dignity at Work Policy has two stages in the informal procedure.
Informal procedure first stage
This involves you or someone on your behalf approaching the person engaging in the unwelcome behaviour and letting them know that you wish the behaviour to stop. If this does not resolve the matter, the second stage of the informal procedure will apply.
Informal procedure second stage
You should engage with your manager and set out the details of your complaint in writing (seek assistance if required). Your complaint will be referred to your HR department which will undertake a desk-based exercise called preliminary screening. This is to assess whether the reported behaviour falls into the definitions of bullying, harassment, or sexual harassment.
If HR finds that the behaviour complained of does not meet one of these definitions, your complaint won’t be progressed under the Dignity at Work Policy. However, your complaint will be addressed through a different HR process, for example, through the Grievance Procedure.
If HR finds that the reported behaviour could be bullying, harassment or sexual harassment, your complaint will be addressed through the second stage of the informal procedures. At this stage, a manager outside of your work area, will bring both parties together and try and resolve the matter over one or more
If the complaint is still not resolved by the two stages of the informal procedure, the complaint may be referred into the formal procedure and get investigated. This will determine whether the complaint is upheld or not.
Upholding a complaint means the investigation found that the behaviour complained of did happen, and that it meets the definition of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment under the policy.
If a complaint is upheld, disciplinary action may be taken against the employee who is found to have engaged in bullying or harassment. Other action may be taken if the person was not an employee, such as a patient, client, visitor or contractor.
The policy recognises that sometimes complaints are made maliciously or vexatiously. If this is found to be the case, disciplinary action or other sanctions could be taken against the person who made the complaint.
Section 8 of the policy gives further information on the procedures and Appendix 1 gives a detailed summary
Mediation is the preferred method under the Dignity at Work Policy for resolving complaints of bullying and harassment. It is important that all employees consider engaging in mediation where there is workplace conflict. Line managers should actively encourage its use where employees they manage are in a conflict situation.
Mediation is voluntary and confidential. An assigned mediator from the Mediation service will work with the two parties involved in the complaint. They will try to resolve the matter speedily, with minimum conflict and stress for the individuals involved.
Mediation may be attempted at all stages of the complaint procedures detailed in the policy. However, it is most likely to be successful when it occurs at an early stage. The mediation process is strictly confidential. Information is not disclosed to any other party, regardless of the outcome.
As a line manager, you have an essential role in creating and maintaining an environment that values diversity and dignity. As well as aiming to prevent inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, you must intervene early when inappropriate behaviours occur. You should try to resolve conflict informally and promptly, and encourage the parties involved to participate in mediation where appropriate.
You have specific responsibilities under health and safety legislation related to bullying and harassment.
As a line manager you should set a good example by:
- treating employees with dignity and respect
- promoting a positive and supportive work environment
- implementing good people management and supervision
- dealing promptly and effectively with any incidents of bullying or harassment
- ensuring that an employee is not victimised for making a complaint of bullying or harassment
See section 9.2 of the policy for further information on line manager responsibilities
Supports for employees and managers
The Dignity at Work Policy recognises that being subjected to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment can have a devastating effect on your physical and mental health. Equally, being accused of such behaviours, wrongfully or otherwise, can have a very negative effect on individuals.
There are various supports available to the parties to a complaint, and to managers seeking support with the implementation of the policy. This includes speaking to a support contact person.
Occupational Health (OH) aims to promote and maintain the physical, mental and social wellbeing of employees. OH provides a confidential, independent advisory service.
Employees or managers can get further information from the Workplace Health and Wellbeing service
Get more information about Occupational Health
Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)
The HSE Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is a work-based support service for staff. It provides a range of services including short-term counselling. This is a confidential, independent service which supports employees with psychosocial issues (psychological and social factors that influence mental health). These issues may be personal or work-related, affecting your job performance or home life. The service is free and available to all HSE employees. It is provided by trained and experienced counsellors, who are professionally qualified and bound by the conduct of the professional bodies to which they belong.
Inspire Workplaces are the external staff counselling partner of the HSE. All HSE employees have access to Inspire Hub. You can log onto to Inspire Hub at any time to access online resources that may be helpful while awaiting an appointment with a counsellor. Access the suite of useful resources and get instructions on how to sign up
Managers can use the EAP service to get advice on staff wellbeing and welfare issues. If you have concerns about your staff’s mental health, EAP recommends this module on HSELand: Supporting Your Staff's Mental Health: A Programme for HSE Managers.
Employees can access EAP services through self-referral, or your manager (with your consent), or the Occupational Health Service. Alternatively, you can call 0818 327 327 to speak to someone who can help.
Referral form Employee Assistance Programme (PDF, 521 KB, 2 pages)
Get more information about the EAP service
HSE National Health and Safety Function
The HSE National Health and Safety Function provides health and safety services within the organisation.
Managers can get support on fulfilling statutory health and safety obligations, undertaking risk assessments and addressing these hazards in the site specific safety statement.
Get more information about the HSE National Health and Safety Function
eLearning module on Dignity at Work
The Dignity at Work eLearning module on HSeLanD has been updated in line with the revised Dignity at Work policy effective 29 August 2022. This eLearning module is mandatory for all HSE and Section 38 employees. It must be completed as soon as possible.
Employees and managers can get advice on the policy from local HR and Employee Relations departments.
The National HR Help Desk can also provide advice:
Phone: 1800 444 925
HR departments and Employee Relations departments can get advice on the policy from National Employee Relations (NER):
Phone: 01 6626 966
Dignity at Work Policy for the Public Health Service (PDF, 1.1 MB, 39 pages)
HR Circular 028/2022 - Revised Dignity at Work Policy for the Public Health Service