This is the update of guidance first issued by the Law Society in 2011, with the assistance of independent consultants, EW Group. The first edition followed research the Society commissioned on the prevalence of bullying and harassment in the legal sector, and undertaken by EW Group. The research underpinning the first edition of the guidance is available here: Preventing Bullying and Harassment in the Profession.

This edition has been updated by the Law Society to take into account developments in this sector and to reflect changes in the support and resources available since the first edition was published.

Bullying and harassment in the legal profession

Workplace bullying and the consequences of that for individuals and businesses in the UK can be severe. Legal excellence requires a well-motivated and fairly treated workforce.

This guidance serves the needs of members by providing practical and relevant advice, and sources of support to individual and employers, so that they can prevent bullying and harassment occurring, and deal effectively with any instances which do occur.

What is bullying and harassment?

There are many definitions of bullying and harassment. These terms are used interchangeably and many definitions include bullying as a form of harassment.

Bullying is often described as the process whereby an employee is intimidated, mistreated or humiliated. It can be characterised by offensive, malicious or insulting behaviour which is designed to undermine the confidence and capability of the victim.

Harassment can be described as unwanted behaviour which affects the dignity of people at work. It may be persistent or an isolated incident. Either way, the key is that the actions or comments are seen as demeaning or humiliating and are unacceptable to the recipient.

In addition, “harassment” which is related to “a protected characteristic” is a form of conduct expressly prohibited by the Equality Act. S26 of the Equality Act 2010 provides that “A person (A) harasses another (B) if A engages in unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating B’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.”

The protected characteristics under the Equality Act are race, gender, age, disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, and marriage and civil partnership.

Examples of bullying/harassing behaviour include:

  • ridiculing or demeaning someone in person or online;
  • exclusion or victimisation;
  • spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone either by talking about the person or posting comments online;
  • inappropriate intrusive questioning, particularly into personal and domestic life;
  • overbearing supervision;
  • deliberately undermining an employee by overloading and constant criticism;
  • unwelcome sexual advances – touching, standing too close, inappropriate language orbehaviour, display of offensive material;
  • preventing employees progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities;and
  • abusing a position of superiority to unreasonably cast doubt on ability.

Workplace bullying and harassment can occur in various forms. It can be face to face, occur in emails, comments posted online, comments or images posted on social media sites or visual images, through other written communications or over the phone. It can be hard to recognise. It may be carried out by an individual against another individual, by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or a supervisor or a third party such as a customer, client, supplier, committee member or panel chair. It may also involve groups of people for example, a group acting together to isolate another colleague.

A one-off incident can amount to bullying or harassment. There is no requirement that an individual explains to the other person that the conduct is unwanted.

It can occur during working hours or in other situations where there is a connection with the workplace or colleagues or has an impact on their relationship with colleagues or clients. For example comments posted online out of working hours may still amount to bullying or harassment. Similarly, conduct which occurs during work related social events may also come within scope.

What is the impact of bullying and harassment?

The impact of bullying and harassment to individuals and organisations are well researched. Bullying and harassment makes the victim anxious and humiliated. The individual may suffer stress, loss of confidence and self-esteem leading to illness, absence from work and even resignation. We are aware that bullying and harassment may lead people to leave the profession altogether, and the Society is keen to ensure this does not occur.

The costs to the business may include low morale, inefficiency, long term illness, potential recruitment and retraining costs due to the loss of staff. There may also be reputational damage to the organisation. Job performance is almost always affected and employee relations in the workplace suffer.

There will also be a direct cost to the business should an employee make a successful claim to the Employment Tribunal for constructive dismissal or for harassment amounting to discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, as well as any associated legal costs. A successful claim against an employer will also damage the reputation of the organisation as an employer and, potentially, to prospective clients. A claim Page 5 of harassment may also prejudice a firm’s prospects when tendering for new business as those looking to appoint new providers will often ask for details about a firm’s record of claims or complaints.

What can individuals and/or employees do?

Identify early warning signs. Identify options and decide a course of action. Be aware of and use available resources and support.

What can firms or employers do?

Learn about the issue of bullying and harassment. Provide training especially for managers. Build a workplace culture of effective response to complaints. 

Model policies

Two examples of bullying and harassment policies adapted from Skills Development Scotland and CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).


Resources to help employers and individuals prevent bullying and harassment.

For further information, please contact:

Elaine MacGlone

Education, Training and Qualifications

Law Society of Scotland

DD: 0131 226 8887