Bullying and harassment in the military – what are my options?

May 13, 2020

Posted by: Kate Roos


Like all employers, the Ministry of Defence has a duty of care to protect service personnel from bullying and harassment in the workplace.  The MoD’s own guidance recognises that this type of behaviour benefits no one, is damaging to the health, performance and morale of those on the receiving end, and may ultimately ruin careers.

Worryingly, however, according to the latest Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey, 11% of service personnel report that they have been subject to bullying, discrimination or harassment in the last 12 months.  What’s more, the vast majority of these individuals did not make a complaint because they either did not believe anything would be done or thought that doing so might adversely affect their career.

What counts as bullying and harassment?

Bullying and harassment are terms used interchangeably by most people, they often mean the same thing.

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), bullying may be characterised as:

Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate or injure the recipient.

Harassment generally involves unwanted conduct which creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual (Equality Act 2010).

Exactly what constitutes bullying or harassment varies from case to case but as a guide these are examples of this type of behaviour that may be found in the Armed Forces:

  • Unwelcome sexual attention or harassment
  • Making fun of the way someone looks or speaks
  • Making fun of someone’s race, religion or beliefs
  • Assaults or unwanted physical contact
  • Excluding someone from group activities or making them take part in unwanted activities
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Undue criticism of someone’s performance or unfairly picking on them
  • Labelling someone who has made a complaint of bullying or harassment a “troublemaker”
  • Career fouling someone by giving them a poor report
  • Physical punishments (‘beastings’)
  • Pressuring someone into not making a complaint

Whatever form it takes, it is unwelcome to those on the receiving end.  It can make those affected feel anxious and humiliated, and sometimes unable to cope.  Inevitably there will be an impact on job performance and in the most serious cases careers may be lost.

What can you do?

Service personnel affected by bullying or harassment have a number of options to consider:

  • Try to resolve the matter informally at an early stage, where possible.  This could involve telling the person to stop whatever it is they are doing that is causing the distress.  You could also discuss the problem with your Chain of Command.  Either way, it is a good idea to keep a diary of all incidents including dates, times, any witnesses and the impact on you.
  • Make a formal complaint using the Service Complaint procedure.  A complaint must normally be made within 3 months of the alleged incident.
  • A claim in negligence against the Ministry of Defence if you are concerned that your superiors or Chain of Command failed to take reasonable steps to protect you from harm.  Time limits for negligence claims are normally three years from the date of any injury.  An injury can include, for example, depression or PTSD.
  • A claim for harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.  This will normally require at least 2 incidents of oppressive and unreasonable behaviour which is targeted at you personally and intended to cause you alarm or distress.  A claim must be brought within 6 years of the first incident of harassment.
  • A claim for discrimination in the employment tribunal under the Equality Act 2010 if you feel you have been treated less favourably because of a protected characteristic, for example your race, religious belief, sex or sexual orientation.  Time limits for most tribunal claims are normally 3 months.
  • A claim under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS) which compensates for any injury, illness or death which was caused by service.  Claims must normally be made within 7 years.  An AFCS claim can be made alongside a legal claim.

Legal advice

It takes courage to complain about bullying, especially in the military, but people should not suffer in silence.

Bullying and harassment in the military is a complicated area of law because there are different ways to make a complaint or bring a claim, either in the County Court, the High Court or an Employment Tribunal.

There are also strict time limits for bringing claims, so legal advice should be sought as soon as possible.  If you wait until the service complaint process is finished, it could mean you are too late.

Kate Roos is a senior solicitor in the Military Claims team at Bolt Burdon Kemp.  If you feel you may have a claim or are enquiring on behalf of a loved one, contact Kate free of charge and in confidence on 0207 288 4876 or at kateroos@boltburdonkemp.co.uk.  Alternatively, complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Military Claims team will contact you.  Find out more about the Military Claims team.

Posted by: Kate Roos

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