Mention bullying in the workplace, and thoughts automatically turn to browbeating, domineering or malicious staff harassing their colleagues or subordinates.
But it can be much more subtle than that. The setting of unreasonable and unrealistic targets can also be construed as bullying or harassment, and employment law specialists are cautioning that unless HR professionals wake up to the problem, they could find themselves in deep water.
"It is not the intention of the perpetrator, but the deed itself and the impact this behaviour has on the recipient, which constitutes bullying or harassment," explains Louise Mackie, employment law adviser at HR support services specialist Empire HR. "The setting of unattainable targets can, therefore, constitute bullying, and could result in an employee feeling pressurised enough to walk out of their job, later claiming constructive unfair dismissal."
Alternatively, if an organisation sacks an employee because they aren't achieving their targets, the employee could claim unfair dismissal, she adds. "There is also the opportunity for people to use equality legislation - relating to the perceived bullying, for example - linking a claim to age or sex discrimination law."
Then there's the employer's duty of care to its employees. "Take the case of Walker v Northumberland County Council," says Mackie. "In this situation, a social services worker had a nervous breakdown. Psychiatrists concluded that the pressure of his increasing workload was the cause and he was signed off work.
"It was decided, however, that he could still work, but not with such unrealistic targets," Mackie continues. "The employer agreed to reduce his workload by getting another employee to share it, but this never happened, and the worker had a second breakdown. He then sued for damages, claiming the company was in breach of its duty of care, and he won."
Since the European Union has finally outlawed workplace bullying and urged employers across Europe to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to it - and since the latest harassment legislation in the UK looks as though it will cover workplace bu