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Is There a Difference Between Strong Management and Bullying at Work?

Posted On: [03/09/2021]

bullying at work

ACAS describes bullying at work as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’. In its Bullying and Harassment at Work Guide ACAS says that the  behaviour of employers and senior managers is as important as any formal policy. Strong management can unfortunately sometimes tip over into bullying behaviour which is not acceptable in any workplace.

In law, your employer owes you a duty of care to take reasonable steps to protect you from foreseeable harm to your physical or mental health.  The case of  Green v DB Group Services (UK) Ltd [2006]  shows what happens when an employer allows ‘a relentless campaign of mean and spiteful behaviour designed to cause distress’.

The type of behaviour Ms Green was subjected to included the following;

“Ignoring me or staring silently at me, often with their arms crossed. This was done in a way that was plainly intended to intimidate and unnerve me;

Greeting and acknowledging other members of the Secretariat department in a very overt manner, in order to highlight the fact that they were not speaking to me;

Excluding me from conversations with other member of the Secretariat department by either talking over me or pretending they could not hear anything I said;

Excluding me from group activities to which every other member of the Secretariat department would be invited, typically when booking restaurants for departmental lunches;

Waiting for me to walk past the area of the office in which they sat before bursting out laughing;

Making crude and lewd comments that made me feel uncomfortable …

Interfering with office administration by removing my name from circulation lists, hiding my post from me and removing papers from my desk.

Specifically in relation to Daniella Dolbear:

Standing inches away from my chair and chatting very loudly out loud, making it difficult for me to make or receive telephone calls. There was no need for Danni to stand this close to me other than as a means of harassing me;

Making raspberry noises with each step I took, if I was walking from one part of the office to another;

Shouting to the other women “err what’s that stink in here?” and then saying “its coming from over there” (referring to me)”.


Ms Green sued in the High Court and won her claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which says that ‘  A person must not pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other. Harassing a person includes alarming the person or causing the person distress’.

To constitute harassment within the meaning of the Act there must have been conduct:

(a) occurring on at least two occasions

(b) targeted at the claimant

(c) calculated in an objective sense to cause distress and

(d) which is objectively judged to be oppressive and unreasonable.

The Court said that employers can be responsible for the bullying and harassment done by their employees (vicarious liability).

In this case, the Court said that the ‘ bullying gave rise to a foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury. Such behaviour when pursued relentlessly on a daily basis has a cumulative effect. It is designed to make the working environment intolerable for the victim. The stress that it creates goes far beyond that normally to be expected in the work place’.


In Mullen v Accenture Services Ltd [2010]  on the other hand, the Court said that  ‘blunt language and inappropriate banter’ did not constitute bullying behaviour but was merely an attempt to drive the work forward in a high performance environment. In this case, the language had not been specifically directed at Mr Mullen. The Court said that there may sometimes be a fine line between strong management and bullying but that line was not crossed in this case.

The two cases above show that the line between strong management and bullying is a matter of degree. Cases are decided on their own facts and the strength of the evidence presented in support of the claim. Ultimately, it is up to you as the target of the bullying and harassment to diarise all incidents, raise a grievance and diligently keep records as Ms Green did in her winning case.