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By LegalEdge News

Trouble Brewing: Tackling Workplace Bullying Early

Bullying is not confined to the playground; it is increasingly recognised as a serious issue in many of the UK’s workplaces. There is certainly more public awareness around workplace bullying, with individuals and charities more likely to take a stand against it.

It can lead to internal disruption and strain on resources, as well as negative publicity. Fast growing businesses, where there is pressure to get results quickly, may be at risk of producing a culture which is fertile ground for bullying. However, there are some easy steps which can be taken to mitigate against this.

Bullying is often referred to together or interchangeably with harassment, but there is no specific definition of bullying under English law and opinions vary as to what exactly constitutes bullying.

There are even different terms for bullying, in different countries. In the USA it may be labelled as “emotional abuse” or “employee abuse”, in parts of Europe it may be referred to as “mobbing”.

ACAS says bullying “may be characterised as: offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

Bullying often involves an abuse of authority – but need not do. It often results in the victim feeling undermined or humiliated and certainly creates a hostile environment for them – whether occasionally or permanently.

In fact, the term covers an almost limitless range of behaviours across a wide spectrum. It may be linked to work issues, or take the form of personal attacks e.g. about appearance, age etc. Bullying may:

  • be perpetrated against an individual or group,
  • be carried out by an individual or group,
  • target more junior or senior people,
  • involve a single incident or a series of incidents,
  • occur in face-to-face interactions or online or in writing,
  • take an extreme form such as physical violence, or be more subtle such as ignoring someone,
  • be done in private or in front of others.

Examples include:

  • Unwanted physical contact.
  • Malicious gossip or rumours.
  • Setting impossible deadlines.
  • Deliberately failing to give information needed to carry out a task.
  • Giving meaningless tasks.
  • Persistent, unwarranted criticism.
  • Shouting.
  • Consistently undermining someone privately or in front of colleagues.
  • Giving someone “the silent treatment”.
  • Exclusion from social events.
  • Unwelcome remarks about a person’s characteristics.
  • Persistent teasing/offensive remarks about a person or their private life.

Bullying behaviour can cause a range of both physical and mental illness in victims such as anxiety, depression, sleep difficulties, stomach problems and in extreme cases suicidal thoughts or PTSD. Consequently, organisations with a culture where bullying is tolerated are likely to see increased absence levels, high staff turnover, low productivity and potentially more ill-health retirements.

While harassment linked to a protected characteristic such as sex or race is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, individuals cannot bring a specific claim against their employer for bullying. They may however be able to bring claims such as breach of contract, breach of health and safety laws and negligence if their employer fails to take steps to protect them from bullying.    

Bullying often happens out of sight of witnesses and can be very subtle, making it difficult for employers to detect and deal with. In addition, bullying may be in the eye of the beholder – one person’s bullying may be another’s “robust management style”. Employers need to equip themselves as best they can to resolve these conundrums.

  • Having an [anti-]bullying policy stating the views of the employer (including what it considers to be bullying) is obviously a good starting point, but only if this is properly communicated to staff, applied consistently by managers and has the buy-in of senior leadership.
  • Encourage openness; no one should be afraid to raise a complaint, and neither should staff fear reprisals or ridicule if they do. An externally run hotline may help encourage staff to voice their concerns.
  • If a bullying complaint is made, take it seriously. Deal with it in a timely manner and where it’s held to be well founded, act decisively to resolve the issue. Failure to deal with a formal grievance properly can be a breach of the employee’s contract.
  • Do everything possible to engender a culture of dignity and respect of co-workers. Much of this is leading by example and making sure all staff understand that the employer’s stance is zero tolerance on bullying. Regular training can help. As can regular communication with staff, be that through employee consultation forums or individually.
  • Conduct exit interviews and regular staff surveys to identify any issues with the lived experience of your staff. Interviews may be formal or informal but can really help identify specific problems or trends of which the organisation would otherwise be unaware.

This summer, craft beer firm BrewDog suffered a PR meltdown when a group of former employees penned an open letter (picked up across the media) claiming there was a “culture of fear” at the company with a “toxic attitude” to junior staff. Co-founders James Watt and Martin Dickie were singled out in the letter, with claims there was a “cult of personality” around them that had a negative impact on internal culture, leaving staff afraid to challenge or speak out.

The company swiftly put in place a raft of wide-ranging measures to try and repair the damage, including:

  • appointing independent consultants to lead a full review into its culture,
  • conducting exit interviews with all those who left the business within the last 12 months,
  • giving staff a 3% pay rise,
  • hiring more staff for under-resourced areas of the business,
  • launching an ethics hotline for reporting misconduct,
  • creating an elected Employee Representative Group,
  • conducting anonymous staff surveys; and
  • appointing its first female chair of the board of directors.

Despite this, it is likely that the prospects for its expected stock market float have been (at least temporarily) damaged by the public airing of staff discontent.

We regularly help our clients draft and review their anti-bullying policies and deliver high quality training to ensure staff understand them. Our bespoke training looks at what is acceptable behaviour, how policies on equality, anti-harassment and anti-bullying work, give examples of how things can go wrong and considers why this matters.

Please get in touch if you would like help with your policies or to discuss our training packages.

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