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How do I…

Dealing with workplace bullying

The AOP’s head of employment, Debbie Nathan, advises on raising and responding to grievances in the workplace

Debbie Nathan

Workplace bullying can have a significant impact on both employees and employers. Employees may be placed under unwarranted pressure and strain and a risk to their health, whilst employers may be faced with employees falling ill or resigning due to bullying.

Check policies and procedures

All employers should have disciplinary and grievance procedures in place – AOP members can access template employment policies on the AOP website – and many employers will also have separate policies on bullying or harassment. If an employee wishes to raise concerns about bullying, workplace policies can provide a helpful guide about the best way to do this and what they are entitled to expect if they do raise a concern.

Can this be resolved informally?

It is generally preferable for all parties involved to try and resolve issues informally if that is at all possible, and most workplace policies will encourage this. An employee may wish to approach those involved directly or, alternatively, the employee should speak to their line manager. An informal resolution can be achieved through a face to face meeting or through a manager speaking to both of the parties involved separately.

Workplace bullying can have a significant impact on both employees and employers


The formal grievance process

If the bullying cannot be resolved through an informal process or the allegations are particularly serious, it is advisable to submit a formal grievance. A written grievance should describe all the instances of bullying with details of the dates, locations and names of possible witnesses. The employer should follow a reasonable grievance procedure in order to consider the concerns and this will generally include an investigation, a grievance hearing, a decision and a right of appeal.

Employees/workers have a legal right to bring a colleague or a trade union representative with them when attending formal grievance meetings. A companion can address the hearing which means that they can put the employee’s case forward, sum up and respond on the worker’s behalf to any view that is expressed in the grievance hearing. The companion can also confer with the employee during breaks.

There are some limits on the role of a companion. In particular, a companion cannot answer questions on behalf of the employee, address the hearing in a way that is contrary to the employee’s express wishes or act in a way that prevents others present from participating in the hearing. Guidance from ACAS indicates that it is good practice for employers to allow companions to participate as much as possible, including being allowed to put questions to witnesses.

If the bullying cannot be resolved through an informal process or the allegations are particularly serious, it is advisable to submit a formal grievance


Workplace bullying can lead to stress, ill health and sickness absence. While an employee is on sick leave, they can raise a grievance and, subject to medical advice, may also be able to attend grievance meetings during sick leave. In some cases, a thorough investigation into an employee’s grievances and a fair resolution can help an employee recover and return to work.

In principle, it is possible to hold a grievance hearing while an employee is on sick leave. However, it may be appropriate for medical advice to be sought to ensure that the employee is fit to attend a meeting and adjustments may be necessary. For example, it may be appropriate to hold the meeting at a different location due to accessibility issues, allow for additional breaks or for the employee to attend with family members for support.

Optometrists who are faced with bullying at work may wish to contact the AOP’s Peer Support Line on 0800 870 8401. AOP members can also obtain specialist employment advice from the Association’s legal team by telephoning 0207 549 2020.