Bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment have no place at work. This page provides information about how to spot bullying and harassment, and guidance on how to deal with them.

Bullying and harassment can have a devastating effect on the victim and seriously impact their health and mental wellbeing. It can lead to loss of self-confidence and self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, humiliation, frustration and anger. It can also give rise to sleep or eating disorders, depression, alcohol or drug abuse and even suicidal thoughts. It may result in absence from work and can severely damage both work and home life. This page covers bullying, harassment, inappropriate designated supervisor/trainee behavior, and employers’ responsibilities.

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Bullying, harassment or conflict?


There is no legal definition of bullying, but there are many common themes in the descriptions given by organisations providing information and advice on dealing with workplace bullying.

ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) describes bullying as:

offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. Bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people. It may be obvious or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.


Some people may be bullied at work because of a particular protected characteristic. A protected characteristic is age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

If this is happening to you, the behaviour of the perpetrator may constitute harassment, as defined by the Equality Act 2010 and may therefore be unlawful. The Equality Act defines harassment as:

unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic … and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating [an individual’s] dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment [for that individual].


Often, relatively trivial things can become a source of conflict. Disputes over who used the last of the milk, whose turn it is to put the kettle on and who last emptied the bin can lead to resentment. The CPPE has produced a guide to resolving conflict that can help people to understand why conflict happens and what can be done to either prevent it from happening in the first place, or learning to manage such situations when needed. You may also find our page and short module on Building Positive Workplace Relationships useful.

Identifying workplace bullying

What is a bully?

Bullies are often more senior than the person they are bullying but this is not always the case – sometimes a bully will be a co-worker, a junior colleague or a customer or client.

People may join in the bullying because they themselves are worried that they will become a victim of the bullying if they do not.

Bullying behaviour

Bullying does not necessarily take place face to face, it can also happen via other communication methods, such as phone, email and in writing, social networking sites or via visual images such as photos.

Bullying can take many different forms. This might include:

  • spreading malicious rumours
  • ignoring or excluding someone from work or social activities
  • deliberately withholding information
  • humiliating someone in public
  • giving someone unachievable tasks or overloading them, setting impossible deadlines
  • removing responsibilities or giving someone trivial tasks to do
  • overbearing supervision
  • misuse of power or position
  • constant criticism of a competent staff member and undermining behaviour
  • undervaluing someone’s contribution
  • blocking promotion or training opportunities
  • personal insults, name calling, constant teasing or making offensive, for example, racist comments
  • demanding someone works extra hours
  • unwelcome sexual advances
  • shouting at someone
  • physical attacks on a person or their property.

How to deal with bullying

Bullying can be gradual and insidious and consequently it may be a while before you realise and acknowledge what is happening to you. So a first step is to accept that you are being bullied. It is easy to feel that you have somehow caused it to happen but it is important to remember that bullying is not your fault and no one has the right to treat you like that. It may help to avoid situations where you are alone with the bully.

Direct approach

Bullying is best dealt with at the earliest stage possible, before the behaviour towards you becomes entrenched. As soon as you experience treatment that is unacceptable to you, common guidance is to take steps to make it clear to the perpetrator that you find the behaviour unacceptable and get them to stop. Sometimes a simple “don’t speak to me like that” or “I feel that you are undermining / humiliating /being offensive to me, is that your intention?” is all it takes and you will have no more trouble. You could talk to them in a public place, though this may be better done at the second attempt since it has been known to cause more confrontations as the bully feels humiliated and may seek to get their own back. Often, a private, simple and politely assertive approach is the best way to begin proceedings.

Say what you wish to say to the perpetrator calmly and firmly and keep to the facts. If you do not feel comfortable doing this alone, you could ask someone to accompany you. You would also then have a witness. If you did not want to be there at all, you could ask someone else to talk to the bully on your behalf. If you feel uncomfortable dealing with this face to face, you could put what you want to say in a memo to the bully, keeping a copy of it and any reply. In any event, keep a clear and accurate record of both any bullying behaviour and anything you say to the bully.

Get support

Make sure that you seek support from others if it is needed and do not try to cope with it on your own. You could talk to a work colleague or a union representative, or your manager. If it is your manager who is bullying you, you could speak to their manager or someone in the HR department. In talking to others, you may find that you are not alone and that the bullying has also happened to other colleagues.

Out of work, speak to friends and family. If you feel you would like to speak to an independent person, you could call the Listening Friends helpline (0808 168 5133) – see Further help and information section below – and speak to another pharmacist in confidence.

Bullying can be very isolating – don’t let it interfere with other relationships at work or stop you from doing things you would normally do, such as going out for drinks with colleagues after work.

Don’t let it affect your home life

Make sure you have things to look forward to outside work. See your friends and family and carry on your leisure activities as normal.

Keep a record

Record keeping is important and, in the event of a hearing or any court action, a diary can establish a pattern of behaviour. Keep a record of all incidences of bullying behaviour, including date and time, what happened and the name of anyone else who was present. Keep all letters, emails, texts and any other correspondence. This will show the pattern and extent of the bullying and will be vital if further action is necessary. Note also any illness and/or absence as a result of the bullying and any medical help you have sought.

If the perpetrator is aware a diary is being kept it may alert them to the fact that their behaviour is unacceptable and may cause them to modify such behaviour.

Make sure that you keep your record at home or somewhere safe, where it cannot be found and/or stolen.

Formal action at work

If the bullying continues following a direct approach to the bully, you could consider making a formal complaint to your employer. Employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Check whether your employer has a policy on bullying  and harassment and obtain a copy. If your employer does not have a policy, you could refer them to the ACAS guidance for employers on dealing with bullying and harassment. This gives information on how to recognise bullying and why it is important to take action. It outlines what could be included in a formal policy and how complaints of bullying could be dealt with. The guidance can be found on the ACAS website.

Sources of advice

If you decide to make a formal complaint, your employer’s bullying policy or grievance procedure will outline the process. If you have a union or staff representative, they will be able to help you.

Pharmacist Support can provide specialist employment advice:
Tel: 0808 168 2233
Email: info@pharmacistsupport.org

You could also contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). To find your nearest CAB, see the Citizens Advice website.

ACAS also has a helpline providing free and impartial advice:
Tel: 0300 123 1100

Informal resolution

Your employer should investigate the complaint and they may look firstly at whether it is possible to resolve the matter informally. This might include informal discussion with the perpetrator, provision of counselling to both parties and/or mediation with an independent third party, who will help to find a solution agreeable to both sides.

Disciplinary action

Where it is not possible or appropriate to deal with the matter informally, your employer may decide to use the organisation’s  disciplinary procedure.

Legal action

It may be that, despite your attempts to get the situation resolved, no action is taken to stop the bullying behaviour. In this case, you may wish to consider seeking advice on options for taking legal action. It is very important that you seek advice from your union or another employment adviser, for example, a specialist employment adviser via Pharmacist Support before taking legal action.

Find out more about our Specialist Advice service

Although there is no specific anti-bullying legislation, there are a number of pieces of legislation that have been used to take action about bullying.


If the bullying is so severe as to constitute a hate crime, defined by the Metropolitan Police as:
Any incident that is perceived by the victim, or any other person to be racist, homophobic, transphobic or due to a person’s religion, belief, gender identity or disability you could consider reporting it to your local police hate crimes unit.


If you are a locum you have the right not to be discriminated against because of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation. If you are in a union, they will be able to advise you on how to deal with it. Otherwise you could seek advice from Pharmacist Support, a local CAB or ACAS. You should keep a record of any incidents (see Keep a record section) and report them to the recruitment agency, if relevant, and
the company to whom you are providing your service.

Bullying and harassment can have devastating effects on the victim. But help and support are available to make sure you don't feel alone.

Bullying and harassment have no place at work. This page provides information about how to spot bullying and harassment, and guidance on how to deal with them.


Identifying harassment

Bullying isn’t against the law, but harassment is. Harassment is when the unwanted behaviour is related to one of the following:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation.

How to deal with harassment

Safe workers (an organisation that gives advice on safety at work) suggests that initially you could confront the harasser, as it may be that their perception of harassment is not the same as yours. They may not have realised that you find their behaviour offensive, however, this does not mean that it was not wrong or that you should not complain about it.

They suggest that when confronting the harasser you should:

  • speak clearly and slowing, maintaining direct eye contact
  • describe the behaviour, its effects on you and that you want it to stop
  • ignore any attempts to trivialise or dismiss what you have to say
  • not smile or apologise as this will undermine your complaint
  • when you have finished what you want to say, walk away.

It might help to have a trade union representative or work colleague with you when confronting your harasser. If you feel that you cannot speak to your harasser directly, you could ask a colleague/trade union representative to speak on your behalf.

If the harassment continues, you should alert your manager or your company’s HR department and keep a note of every incident that follows, including time, date and whether there were any witnesses. You might want to consider seeking expert advice from your trade union or contact us at Pharmacist Support for a referral to a specialist employment adviser.

Contact Pharmacist Support

Inappropriate designated supervisor/foundation trainee relationship

The foundation year is designed to help you to learn the many different skills you will need to become a qualified pharmacist. Occasionally, designated supervisors will have to give trainees constructive criticism. It is helpful to try to use this as a valuable opportunity from which to learn. Being open and learning from previous mistakes will make you a better pharmacist.

Occasionally, designated supervisors may behave in a manner that demonstrates disrespect for others or act in an unprofessional manner with regards to interpersonal contact. Whilst there is an element of subjectivity in both the witnessing and experiencing of such behaviours, some actions are clearly inappropriate conduct. These include:

  • unwanted physical contact
  • sexual harassment, including romantic relationships between designated supervisors and foundation trainees
  • harassment based on gender, age, race, disability, religion or sexual orientation
  • lack of personal civility, for example shouting, throwing objects and personal attacks or insults
  • requests for trainees to perform inappropriate tasks that are clearly not related to their foundation training (for further information on appropriate tasks see below)
  •  evaluations/sign-offs based on factors unrelated to performance, effort or level of achievement.

Appropriate tasks

It is important for trainees to understand that not every task in the pharmacy will be directly related to their training to become a pharmacist. Working in a pharmacy involves a range of tasks, some of which are more mundane than others. Trainees should expect to perform tasks such as emptying bins, date checking items from uncollected prescriptions and making tea.

Showing willing with these tasks can go a long way to being an accepted part of the team. However, this should not be all that trainees do on any given day.

Support for trainees in difficulty

If trainees find it difficult to approach their designated supervisor, they could try any of the following:

  • enlist the help of a colleague to mediate
  • contact their HR department
  • talk to their trade union representative
  • follow their employer’s internal grievance procedures
  • contact Pharmacist Support for specialist employment advice.

Trainees who wish to raise a concern about their training can do so via the GPhC’s raising concerns about pharmacy education and training form.

For full details, see the GPhC website.

Employers’ responsibilities

It’s important to remember that employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment, and they’re liable for any harassment suffered by their employees. If you’re an employer, you may want to consider developing anti-bulling and harassment policies as these can help to prevent problems. Further information and support can be found in the ACAS website below.

Further help and information

  • ACAS
    Advice and guidance on bullying is available in the Health and the workplace section of the ACAS website, including separate booklets for employees and employers.
  • GOV.UK
    The GOV.UK has information on discrimination in the workplace.
  • Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
    The HSE website has advice and guidance about bullying and harassment.
  • Listening Friends
    Listening Friends is a confidential stress helpline provided by Pharmacist Support and staffed by pharmacists.
    Tel: 0808 168 5133
  • Samaritans
    The Samaritans provide confidential emotional support 24/7 to those experiencing despair, distress or suicidal feelings:
    Tel: 116 123
    Email: jo@samaritans.org
  • Trades Union Congress (TUC)
    The TUC website has information and guidance on bullying.
  • WorkSmart (TUC)
    Information on bullying is available on WorkSmart, a website produced by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

This page was last reviewed and updated in November 2023.

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