Employer’s Guide to Tackling Workplace Bullying

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Not only was last week National Bullying Awareness Week but it saw a high profile politician under the spotlight accused of bullying. They were forced to apologise for their behaviour, whilst the government faced an even bigger backlash for their handling of the situation.

In this article we look at the subject of bullying in the workplace, how to spot it, how to prevent it and crucially how to tackle it.

What is bullying?

Surprisingly, there isn’t a legal definition of bullying. Instead the law tends to focus on ‘harassment’ which is defined as a behaviour, or set of behaviours, that cause someone to feel intimidated or offended in some way.

It can be a one-off event or a series of incidents or behaviours over time. It can be carried out verbally via face-to-face interactions or it can take place in written forms of communication like email, letter or social media.

Examples of bullying in a work context can include:

  • Setting someone up to fail by knowingly setting them unachievable objectives or targets
  • Singling someone out by publicly airing their errors or omissions
  • Calling someone names
  • Talking about someone in a negative way or talking behind their back
  • Ostracising someone by excluding them from work events or group discussions/communications. This can be very prevalent at the moment with the reliance on remote working due to the pandemic.

Can bullying occur outside of work?

Yes. The bullying behaviours do not have to occur exclusively in the workplace to constitute workplace bullying.

For example, bullying behaviours can occur at work events such as Christmas parties or whilst travelling to work assignments.

Why should employers be concerned about bullying?

No employer wants to be known for having a toxic, bullying culture and in the world of social media and websites such as Glassdoor- word will get around pretty quickly.

There exists in all employment relationships the implied term of trust and confidence. This of course goes both ways and applies to both the employee and the employer but in the context of bullying and harassment, the employer has duty to provide a safe working environment free from hostility. A culture of bullying is in stark contrast to this and ought to be dealt with.

A failure to deal with bullying can result in:

  • Risk of claims (see below). This can prove very costly not only financially but from a reputational standpoint.
  • High staff turnover. Recruitment is a costly exercise and something which employers invest a lot of time in in terms of training and so on. If you have a culture of bullying, you will almost certainly have a high turnover of staff. This is costly and damaging to your reputation.
  • A less productive workforce– you want your employees to dedicate their time to the needs of your business, not to use that time to bully and harass one another.
  • High sickness absence. Someone who is being bullied is highly likely to require time off work due to the stress and anxiety this causes.
  • Its immoral– a rather obvious point to make but an important one nonetheless.

What claims can an employee bring against their employer for bullying?

  • Constructive dismissal

If an employee has over two years’ service with the company and feels that they have been subjected to bullying or harassment, if this is not dealt with appropriately or it is of a very serious nature, they may take the view that this has caused an irretrievable breakdown in the implied  trust and confidence they once had in their employer.

This may result in them feeling like they have been pushed out of the company and as a result they are left with no option but to resign.

  • Discrimination

If the bullying and harassment is linked to a protected characteristic, as defined under the Equality Act, this can result in a claim for discrimination.

For example, a manager that imposes a set of targets on a pregnant worker which are unachievable in comparison to her non-pregnant colleagues, or someone being subjected to racist language at work.

Please see our previous articles on discrimination and promoting equality and diversity at work:

How to deal with a complaint of bullying

No two cases are the same and there is never a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Many complaints of bullying can be resolved informally but usually a company will have a bullying and harassment policy setting out the appropriate steps for handling a complaint of this nature.

Alternatively, a complaint may be made under the grievance procedure.

In any case, it is important that you seek advice from our exerts at the earliest opportunity so that we can support you in handling the complaint because if left unchecked these situations can very quickly escalate.

Please see our previous article on handling workplace disputes and grievances here.

Bullying versus ‘being managed’

This is a situation a lot of employers and managers find themselves in.

For example, they have had to give feedback to an employee on a task that was not completed to the appropriate standard or they may have had to address someone’s lateness, only to find that the employee responds by saying they are being bullied.

This can be very distressing for the persons involved and there is a tendency to dismiss the complaint as being an example of someone who is just being obstructive and doesn’t like being given instructions.

However, it is important to keep an open mind because there may well be underlying issues here, such as a manager not addressing the individual in a professional manner or exercising favouritism.

Often all that is required is an acknowledgement of the persons feelings and appropriate management training to prevent the issues arising again.

What about unfounded and malicious allegations?

The issue here lies in the question. An unsubstantiated complaint of bullying does not automatically mean that the person who has raised the complaint has done so out of malice- in fact malicious intent is very hard to prove. More often that not, allegations are not substantiated owing to a lack of evidence usually because it is one person’s word against another.

However, where the evidence supports that a malicious allegation has been made this is very serious and may constitute gross misconduct in some instances. Its vital that advice from our experts is sought before taking any action.

You will however, occasionally encounter a situation where someone appears to be making allegations of bullying every time their manager reasonably has to manage them, to the extent that the manager begins to feel bullied by constantly being accused of bullying!

It is not appropriate for any employee to abuse any internal process whether that be the bullying and harassment policy or grievance procedure and this may give rise to them facing disciplinary action. However, these situations are very rare and need to be handled with care.

Can I suspend or move someone who is making a complaint, just whilst the matter is investigated?

Be very careful here. You don’t want it to appear that you are ‘punishing’ the person who is raising the complaint, especially if that complaint is one of alleged bullying on the grounds of discrimination.

Instead you really should be considering suspending the person who has been accused of bullying, not the accuser. If this is not appropriate then you can look at separating the persons involved by asking them to work in different areas of the business or you may want to suggest that one of the parties takes some leave that may be owing to them.

This can be a lot easier said than done, especially in a small business but our experts will be able to talk you through the options available to you.

Bullying prevention

To quote a variation on a common phrase, ‘you can choose your friends but not your colleagues’. So, whilst there will be some form of conflict or disagreement between staff at some time or another, bullying is should never be seen as an inevitable part of working life, instead prevention is better than cure.

Consider the following when looking at bullying prevention:

  • Be consistent when managing staff
  • Don’t ignore complaints. It is the employer’s responsibility to resolve complaints of bullying, not the employees.
  • Take complaints seriously and in line with your policies and procedures.
  • Record everything. Even if an informal approach to a complaint of bullying has been agreed, please make sure records of meetings and communications are kept.
  • Be open minded and impartial – a manager who is the subject of a bullying complaint cannot be reasonably expected to carry out a fair and impartial investigation into their own alleged conduct. Appoint someone to investigate the complaint who is external to the company if needs be.
  • Training- ensure your managers know how to manage staff and know how to deal with complaints of bullying.
  • Don’t nurture a culture of bullying. A culture of bullying develops very quickly at any level of an organisation. It is important to lead by example and take all necessary steps to address and prevent it.

Remember- our experts here at Avensure are here to assist you- don’t delay, the sooner you contact us the better.

Please quote your Client Account Number on all correspondence and telephone calls. 24-hour client advice line: 0800 151 2935.