Would you hit a colleague? Shout at someone who'd made a mistake? Jokingly call someone names? You may answer no, but think back over the last six months, is your conscience crystal clear? One in 10 employees think they have been bullied in the last six months. Someone out there is harassing staff at work and it could be happening at yours. Doing nothing is not an option. Nicola Walker is one of the UK's top trainers in diversity, communications and confidence. Her company Nicola Walker Catalyst runs training events internationally and she is committed to combating bullying in the workplace.

What is harassment?

Harassment can be thought of as any unwanted behaviour that a person finds intimidating, upsetting, embarrassing, humiliating or offensive.

The focus of all related legislation, the Sex Discrimination, Race Relations, Disability Discrimination and Protection from Harassment Acts, lies in the impact of the behaviour on the recipient.

Is the organisation's culture to blame?

Harassment can be inherent in the way an organisation does business. Rewarding 'tough' managers with promotion or performance bonuses is something often bemoaned by their abused staff.

Most employees can work with tough deadlines now and again, but their perception of how they are set, how much control they have over their work and the kind of rewards that are in place, can make the difference between feeling harassed and willingly making an effort.

In a UNISON survey, 90 per cent of people said that the fact that bullies can get away with it was a major factor in the prevalence of bullying behaviour, and people were scared to report it.

What effect does harassment have?

The laws on harassment focus on how a person feels about the behaviour that took place and the effects can be many.

Symptoms include anger, anxiety, depression, withdrawal and problems concentrating. Targets often report a lack of confidence and complain of stomach upsets or seemingly minor illnesses.

However, there may actually be a lower rate of absenteeism because they are afraid of giving their persecutor more ammunition with which to harass them.

They can become anxious about being seen as 'not up to the job' and having their standing undermined.

Research in 1998 found a quarter of those subjected to bullying at work left their employment, as did one in five of those who had witnessed it. Some stay on to fight for an apology or even vengeance, but many put up and shut up often destroying their personal lives in the process.

Who are the harassers?

It's hard to generalise about the types of people who bully or harass at work.

It's reported that about three-quarters are managers, some of whom feel threatened by their subordinate's knowledge, creativity etc, whilst some do it because they can or because they are inflexible, opinionated or stressed themselves.

What are the signs?

Ignore the signs at your peril people leaving, grapevine gossip, drops in productivity, sickness, people asking to be moved, all hint at an underlying problem.

Find out what it is. Do exit interviews, back to work interviews, monitor performance and sickness, talk to people informally, but treat it seriously, take appropriate action and monitor.

What can you do about it?

Targets who stand up to their harassers straightaway, are likely to nip the problem in the bud.

Research has shown that telling the harasser their behaviour is unacceptable within two weeks of it first happening is most likely to stop it.

Leave it longer than that, and the target's self-confidence is quickly eroded and they may need help.

Managers and personnel people must deal with harassment promptly to avoid the permanent breakdown of working relationships.

Whatever the size of your company, you can reduce the incidence of unacceptable behaviour by having a widely broadcast statement, explicitly stating that harassment will not be tolerated, giving examples of bad behaviour and its consequences, and emphasising that everyone is responsible for their own acts.

It is crucial to have a process for dealing with it, which is explained to staff, and is enforced and monitored.

In my years as an investigator, I have seen so many cases that could have been avoided if action had been taken early, if targets or managers had had that difficult conversation to say 'what you just did was unacceptable'.

A lot of harassers don't intend to hurt people and would be mortified to think that they had; a quiet word and an apology might avoid escalation.

Some harassers do intend to hurt and undermine, and an early warning that their behaviour has been spotted and the consequences should they continue, is enough to stop them in their tracks.

What is important is that everyone, not just managers and personnel, takes action when behaviour is unacceptable.