Unfair treatment at work: what can employers do?

8 min read  |   21 October, 2021   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

Two men are having a conversation at a wooden table. One man is wearing a grey shirt and is writing notes as he listens to the other man.

Most of us luckily leave the horrors of bullying behind soon after stepping out of school. Whether bully or victim, most have the opportunity to mature and move on.

Unfortunately, there are occasions where playground tactics and unfair treatment can stick through to adulthood, then creep into the workplace, boardroom and beyond.

Employers need to understand:

If there's one thing we know about bullying, it's that it isn't always obvious. And when we transfer this to the adult-world, we see a subtler exchange where one employee undermines another, or someone who is deliberately berated for their work instead of acknowledging the hurdles their employee faces.

It's most likely because they're under resourced. Have they received backing to look for extra training?

We use one-to-ones, sickness trends, holiday logs, kudos and performance reviews on Breathe.  It's great for understanding dynamics within teams and recognising individuals' strengths. Plus, you can try them for free.

Think of it as your barometer for people and opportunities to help growth. It'll help you gauge where your company sits in terms of employee interpersonal relationships and team support. 

These tensions between colleagues or managers can really impact staff productivity and morale. According to Breathe's Sick Report 2019 , 14% of employees have taken time off because of a stressful situation at work.

If you’re running your own business, then nipping any unfair behaviour or bullying in the bud isn’t only important for staff wellbeing and morale, it also has a direct impact on your bottom line too. 

What is unfair treatment at work?

As an employer, you want your staff to feel respected and fairly treated at work. If, therefore, you sniff even the faintest whiff of victimisation or bullying, be the adult and talk to your team.  

Unfair treatment can mean a number of things:

  • It could involve a staff member having their work undermined even though they’re competent at their job.
  • A manager could take a dislike to a particular employee and make their life difficult, unfairly criticising their work or setting them menial tasks.
  • Whereas one may get ignorantly overlooked for promotion, another could involve employee slander.

In all cases, the victim(s) - so, one or more of your people - are likely to suffer from anxiety, feel degraded, humiliated and unworthy, which is most likely heightened at work. 

Unfair treatment typically overlaps with discrimination, so we're talking gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or pregnancy.

For example, if someone is offered a promotion but later mentions they are pregnant and that promotion is withdrawn without what is considered fair explanation, this could be discrimination.

Bullying and harassment at work

Employers and HR managers must take extra care to spot potential sources of bullying and harassment at work.

Bullying and harassment constitute any treatment that leaves an employee feeling degraded, humiliated, offended or intimidated. In addition, an employee might not feel able to complain, particularly if the bully is a manager or more senior than them.

Example of harassment at work

Picture this:

Jane makes offensive and derogatory comments about Paul’s sexuality. Paul overhears Jane whispering and sniggling as he returns to his desk from lunch. He messages his manager, explaining his concerns and how Jane's behaviour is making him feel uncomfortable at work. His manager - Suzie - has had a busy day and quickly dismisses it as banter, hoping to sweep it under the carpet. 

As an employer, Suzie could've listened to Paul's concerns and set up an internal meeting to go over the facts and how this made him feel. That's because before any grievance procedure starts, it's important to make everyone aware of their options for reporting bullying or harassment at work. And, this also helps to keep things confidential. 

Make sure your formal policy is firmly in place and easily to access - we detail ours within our employee handbook and upload this to Breathe so everyone can see.

Think of your employee handbook as the holy grail of your company's procedures, a how-to-guide for outlining incident reporting as well as setting behaviour expectations and standards to deter unfair treatment.

Our company documents feature on Breathe is perfect for HR users to keep a tally of who's up to date and well-read. We recommend adding a deadline to the most important documents your employee's need to read. Both you and the employee will receive reminders and updates if it passses the deadline. 

Company culture has a big impact here. Especially if you follow a hierarchy, top-down leadership model. Nonetheless, regardless of culture type, ensure that your senior staff and managers set a good example and practise what they preach.  

Prevention is better than cure. Safeguard your people and promise to put them first by joining our Culture Pledge.

The law on bullying and harassment 

Bullying and harassment is covered under the Equality Act 2010 and covers behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. 

While bullying in itself is not illegal, harassment is.

Behaviour is considered harassment in the eyes of the law when it is relates to:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Gender
  • Marriage
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race, religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation

Now, when we look at bullying, the lines start to blur and the law is muckier – what one person considers as bullying, another may see as simply a case of firmer management styles.

Where you can, try to encourage your employees to communicate and solve issues informally.

Protect your employees

Thankfully, our management-style is pretty new school, so takes culture seriously. That's why we welcome open door, call anytime, face-to-face interactions and support with all of our team.

With Breathe you can gain a more consistent grasp on the health and wellbeing of your team as well as instantly check company policy and procedure documents.

Equally, suggest to your employees that they check their company documents and grievance procedure from their Breathe account.

We've found this helpful as it gives your employees more time and privacy when reading their options as well as a chance to make notes and mark questions they can then check with their HR consultant or manager.

Oh, and we'll keep you or HR informed, by sending through a notification so you know they've read what they need to.

What to do if there's unfair treatment in your business

Unfortunately, if the internal grievance procedure remains unresolved after a full two-week investigation and the company's appeal policy been adhered to, it's then moved on to higher ground and shoots further up the ladder.

Make sure your employees are well aware of the free services available to them at such times. A good starting point is through ACAS or Citizens Advice, who offer impartial and free legal support and guidance. Although friendly, remember that each conciliator cannot provide legal advice.

What they can do, however, is help you determine if you should seek it elsewhere and then provide you with links to solicitors and further information about legal action in an employment tribunal. 

Bullying and harassment policies:

Ensure that your anti-bullying and harassment policies are clear as day and easily accessible to staff at all times. Did we mention you can locate company documents and send in seconds via Breathe... 

Policies and procedures with clear statements - which outline unacceptable grounds and the consequences that follow - often see the best results here.


  • If there's employee mistreatment in your workplace, a quick and supportive reaction is advised. Investigate the claim promptly and treat it seriously – employees don’t normally complain unless they feel seriously wronged so give it the attention it deserves.
  • Collate all the evidence from all parties before drawing any conclusions. 
  • Attempt to resolve it informally – sometimes people simply don’t realise their behaviour is causing offence and simple education will rectify this.
  • Offer free services and advice. For example, counselling or mediation therapy may help to resolve any issue.
  • Where informal resolutions are unsuccessful, disciplinary action against the perpetrator may be necessary.
  • A written warning, transfer or suspension of the bully/harasser are all options you could consider.
  • If the bullying or harassment amounts to gross misconduct, then dismissal is likely the best option.


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter as of February 2023, Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With a passion for guiding readers to solutions for their HR woes, she enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: From employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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