This section explains what bullying is, how to recognise if you are being bullied, ways to help you if you are being bullied and where you can go for support. It also aims to help you at work, with tips on how to interact and cope in the workplace.
What is bullying?
Bullying is similar to harassment. It is when one person, or a group of people, intentionally cause harm to someone else and behave in a way that is deliberately offensive and unkind towards them. For example, a bully might make jokes about an individual's disability, or make rude remarks about someone's sexual orientation. A person could be bullying in the way they speak to you, in their words and their manner (for example, verbal harassment) and the things that they do to you (for example, physical assault). They may also be a bully in other more subtle ways, such as forcing or manipulating you to do things, leaving you out of activities, or saying unkind words about you when you are not there.
No-one should have to put up with being bullied at work. Everyone should instead be treated with dignity and respect. Bullying or harassment should not be tolerated. Your employer is responsible for preventing bullying and harassing behaviour. They should have measures in place to prevent bullying, and have grievance procedures to give help and support if you are being bullied.
People tend to describe bullying in two ways: direct bullying and indirect bullying. Sometimes it can be easier to recognise if a person is bullying you directly, but even direct bullying can be hard to interpret. Examples of direct bullying could be:
- rude remarks
- jokes or remarks about your disability
- insulting you in what they are saying to you or the way they are behaving towards you
- overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
- unwelcome sexual advances - this could be touching you, or standing too close to you while showing or displaying something that you find offensive
- humiliating you in front of other colleagues
- physical abuse.
It can be more difficult to tell if you are being bullied if the bullying is indirect or underhand. Examples of indirect bullying can be:
- not being put forward for training or promotion
- persistently criticising your performance
- setting you tasks or deadlines that you are never going to be able to meet
- leaving you out or not inviting you to team social events
- spreading malicious rumours about you
- making uncalled for comments about your job security when you have been working perfectly satisfactorily; for example, saying that the last person who did your job was fired for not doing the job correctly.
Bullying might not just be done face-to-face - it could happen in emails or other written documents to you, over the phone, or by being unfairly monitored for something when none of your colleagues are being singled out for the same kind of treatment. This means you are being supervised in a way that no-one else is, so you are being treated differently.
What the law says about the role of your employer
Although there is no legal offence of letting an employee be bullied, employers do have a duty of care to you while you are at work. Also, you can make complaints under laws covering discrimination and harassment. One of the main laws we'll look at here is the Equality Act 2010. However, it's important to remember that you could be bullied for reasons other than your disability; for example, because of your race or sex, or just because someone doesn't like you.
The employer's duty of care means taking action to deal with the problem if there is bullying at work. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees and if they do not keep to this they are in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act.
Equality Act 2010
If you decide to tell your employer about your diagnosis, it means that you are protected by the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act requires public bodies to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people, and there is a whole section of the Equality Act on employment. Being protected by the Equality Act means you should be treated equally and fairly in the workplace, and should not be discriminated against on the grounds of your disability. It also means that your employer should make reasonable adjustments to help you at work.
Jobs in the armed forces are not covered by the Equality Act.
It is up to you if you decide to tell your employer about your diagnosis. However, there can be other benefits, as well as being protected by the Equality Act, in telling your employer about your diagnosis. By making more people aware of your condition this should help them to understand the possible support you might need. This should create a more supportive work environment for you, in which bullying is less likely to occur. It may be that you do not want your whole team to know, so you could just tell your line manager and/or the human resources team.
There is more information on reasonable adjustments in the information packs we produced with the support of our specialist employment consultancy. The information has been written for employers and managers, and gives examples of reasonable adjustments they could make for staff members on the autism spectrum. You can also download the information from our website, at the following link: www.autism.org.uk/employers
What should I do if I think I'm being bullied?
If you think you are being bullied, try to talk to someone about what has been happening. This could be someone you trust at work, or someone you see outside work. Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if someone is being kind or if someone is being cruel. Behaviour that seems like bullying might not be, so it would be a good idea to talk it through and give examples to someone else in order to get their opinion. One good place to be able to talk about this could be at a social group for people with an ASD. If you would like to know if there are any social groups near you, please get in touch with our Autism Helpline or search on our Autism Services Directory.
Marc Segar wrote a survival guide for people with Asperger syndrome - it's a guide to help with understanding social rules and situations and talks about things like appropriate behaviour, understanding when someone is being a true friend and understanding body language. You can read Marc Segar's book online at the following link.
There are a number of specialist employment organisations who have helplines you can speak to if you think you are being bullied, and their details are listed at the end of this information.
If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to other colleagues at work to see if anyone else feels they are being bullied or if they have seen you being bullied. It may be that the bully is targeting other people too. It is important that you do not try to cope on your own - there are other people who will be able to help you and offer support.
You should keep a diary with a clear description of what happened with the bullying. Sometimes events in isolation may look trivial, but looking at them all together shows the true effect of them. Having recorded evidence will always be helpful if you need to take things further. Good things to note in this diary would be:
- what happened
- when it happened
- who else was there
- if anybody else did or said anything
- how it made you feel.
If you are a member of a union and there is a union safety representative where you work, you could arrange a meeting to tell them what is happening. You can talk to your union representative in complete confidence and they can offer you advice and support. This support could mean they talk to the bully themselves to try and resolve the problem, or they might provide you with support if you decide to make a formal complaint. This support should continue throughout the procedure.
Tips for interacting and coping at work
It can be really helpful for you to have a workplace mentor, or a named person at work that you feel you can talk to about issues at work. You will be able to talk to this person about the unwritten office rules, and they will be able to check whether you are confused over instructions that you have been given. Sometimes, it might just be useful to have someone to talk to about any other issues you have in your place of work. You could ask your manager or HR team about finding a workplace mentor for you. It needs to be someone you can trust, so think of some people at work who you would feel comfortable talking to and tell your manager or HR team about them. It does not necessarily have to be someone in your team. It is useful to have regular scheduled meetings with your mentor, so that if any incidents do occur you can talk about them as they happen and deal with them early, rather than letting things build up over time.
There are often a number of unspoken office rules and it is helpful to go through these with your mentor. These rules vary greatly between organisations, and sometimes even different teams in the same organisation, so it is important to talk them through with someone. Examples of these rules could be:
- offering to make everyone a drink when you make one for yourself (depending on the size of the team)
- using your own mug and washing up anything that you use
- finding out the arrangements with tea bags/coffee/milk - is there a collection you need to contribute to if you use it? What do you need to do if you use up the last of the milk?
- finding out about lunchtime arrangements - does someone have to be in the office at all times over the lunch period? If so, is there a rota for when people take their lunchbreaks?
You could talk to your mentor about the different levels of relationship that exist at work. At work, relationships are generally more formal than those that we have with close friends and family members. Some things that we say to our close friends and family are not appropriate to talk about at work, and some topics are not appropriate to discuss at work.
The things that people talk about and the way they talk at work is sometimes called workplace banter, and this is another topic you could talk with your mentor about. Workplace banter is a form of conversation that takes place between work colleagues, particularly those who work in an open plan office. The National Autistic Society has published a book called Body Language and Communication, which suggests how to participate in this banter, giving you tips and advice. Workplace banter is not usually an ongoing conversation, it's more a series of short bursts of conversation throughout the day. It can be quite usual for people not to stop what they are doing - to join in the banter, often people will remain at their desks and continue working while still chatting.
It is usually a good idea to show awareness that the conversation is going on - if you show no reaction, people may think that you are not interested, or that you are being rude. While workplace banter can have little consequence, it is a great way to develop good working relationships with colleagues and feeling one of the team. (Perks, 2007). You may feel like you want to start some workplace banter. If so, some appropriate topics of conversation could be:
- the weather
- recent television programmes or films
- recent sporting events.
Some inappropriate topics of conversation are:
- money (eg how much people earn in your team)
- critical comments about how people look (eg what they are wearing)
- personal comments about colleagues.
If you have decided to declare your disability you may find it helpful to pass on information about Asperger syndrome to your team. If you do not feel comfortable doing this you could get your manager or your mentor to pass on the information. Included in this information could be general information about Asperger syndrome (available from our Autism Helpline or at our website at www.autism.org.uk/asperger) and information about reasonable adjustments that could help you at work. Examples of these could be:
- writing down instructions and tasks
- giving short, clear instructions
- breaking down large tasks into smaller components
- having a regular timetable of tasks to add structure to your working day
- asking that people make it clear if you are talking too long about a subject, which is your particular special interest.
You may also like to talk to your manager or HR team about seeing if they will arrange autism/Asperger syndrome awareness training for all staff. Training is offered by external companies and could be something that will help your team understand your needs more, and in turn lead to a more supportive workplace for you.
ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service)Helpline tel: 08457 47 47 47 (Monday-Friday 8am-8pm and Saturday 9am-1pm)
ACAS has a number of regional offices, and you can find out the details of your nearest office on the ACAS website. They also have many useful information sheets on their website, including Bullying and Harassment at work: guidance for employees
Dignity at Work
The Dignity at Work project is working in partnership to find new solutions to bullying in the workplace.
Bully OnLine is about workplace bullying and related issues, validates the experience of workplace bullying and provides confirmation, reassurance and re-empowerment.
Success Unlimited provides information, runs seminars and produces publications on strategies for dealing with bullying.
Books and resources
Perks, S. (2007). Body Language and Communication: A Guide for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders. London: The National Autistic Society
Johnson, M.L (2004). Managing with Asperger syndrome: A Practical Guide for White Collar Professionals. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications
Stott, B. Tickle, A. (2010) Exploring Bullying with Adults with Autism and Asperger Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications
Quick link to this page: www.autism.org.uk/23601