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Moral harassment – are you concerned?

Conflict happens, and in a large international organisation like ours it is often inevitable. Indeed, when it happens in the context of a confrontation of different ideas, opinions or methods it can be considered to be a healthy component of effective collaboration. Yet, when conflict becomes personal, when it is underpinned by unethical actions and hostile interactions, these interpersonal differences can rapidly deteriorate into moral harassment or bullying behaviour.


Moral harassment or bullying behaviour occurs in the work environment when healthy relations break down between two people or between an individual and a group of people. As stated in CERN’s Operational Circular No. 9, it is behaviour that is “contrary to the principles of equal opportunity, non-discrimination and mutual respect [and]… it is detrimental to health and safety at the workplace and the good functioning of the Organization in general”. It often involves an abuse or misuse of power, either positional or emotional, and tends to put its targets into a humiliating or disadvantageous situation, within which they may have difficulty defending themselves.

So when does a healthy conflict deteriorate into harassment? What are the signs by which we can recognise the difference and are there any particular contexts where this type of bullying behaviour may typically arise? And what could be the consequences of such behaviour on our working climate and environment?

One of the key underlying factors in moral harassment is a lack of clarity and transparency: when roles are unclear, communication is evasive or non-existent, or when people are either marginalised, left out of decisions that concern them or actions are taken covertly and behind their backs... the risk of potential harassment becomes very real.

These situations lend themselves to negative behaviours such as the mobbing or isolation of colleagues – “don’t inform her, she will argue every detail…”, malicious gossip – “he’s angling for the top job…”, threats – “you had better not go to complain…”, or labelling – “he’s a troublemaker…”, all of which have long-lasting effects on people’s work, their reputations and ultimately their physical and mental health and safety. Examples of other factors that may lead to this type of unacceptable behaviour include uncooperative behaviour, ambiguous personal relations or systemic alliances.

If you find yourself subjected to any kind of bullying behaviour, it is the time to take early action to put a stop to it, either by addressing it yourself directly or by requesting the support of a third person such as the Ombud, your supervisor or your HRA, as appropriate. It is useful to keep a record of the specific occurrences and any witnesses, as well as your own attempts to address the situation. If the behaviour persists you may need to resort to a formal complaint, in which case an investigation will be carried out in line with the procedures established by the Organization.

Equally, if you recognise a tendency towards any of these behaviours in yourself, it is the time to acknowledge this to yourself and stop!

No one should have to put up with the sense of exclusion, unfairness or injustice that is inflicted by moral harassment! Whether addressed through formal or informal means, such situations require timely action in order to prevent negative repercussions on people’s morale, motivation and the corresponding loss of performance and productivity for the Organization.