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Workplace Bullying and Harassment

April 2023

The issue of bullying in the workplace is firmly back in the spotlight following the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, after an investigation into claims of bullying against him.

Last year, Rishi Sunak, asked Adam Tolley KC to carry out an investigation into eight formal complaints about Raab’s bullying behaviour while working as Cabinet Minister in a range of departments. The complaints were serious, with some officials who worked with Raab claiming that he “ruined people’s lives” with his “coercive behaviour”. Tolley’s report upheld two complaints, finding that Raab’s actions involved “abuse or misuse of power in a way that undermines or humiliates” and that he had acted in an “unreasonably and persistently aggressive” manner during a work meeting as Foreign Secretary.

For his part, Raab described the investigation findings as “flawed” in his resignation letter, saying that “by setting the threshold of bullying so low” the investigation had set a “dangerous precedent”. 

Westminster is far from being a typical workplace, but the issues raised here will resonate with many employers trying to resolve a bullying complaint at work: how do you achieve a balance between demanding managers seeking to give forthright and direct feedback to their team in order to improve performance and drive results, and employees who experience this behaviour as intimidating, belittling and controlling?

The lack of a clear definition of bullying is problematic; the gov.uk website defines workplace bullying and harassment as: “behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended”. However, turning a blind eye to bullying behaviour in the workplace is not an option for employers. Employers have a responsibility for their employees, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because all employers have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees – and that includes bullying and harassment. 

The experience of being bullied in the workplace is likely to have a long-term adverse effect on an individual’s mental health. That is bad enough in itself but, from the employer’s point of view, bullying creates a toxic working environment where there is likely to be low motivation and engagement levels and a high level of absenteeism and staff turnover. Additionally, employers are liable for their employees’ acts of harassment, whether or not the act of harassment was done with the employer's knowledge or approval, and they must ensure that they have robust policies and procedures in place for maximum protection.

One of the first steps for employers is to have, and actively enact, an effective anti-bullying and harassment policy making clear that bullying and harassment in the workplace will not be tolerated and, if proved, may lead to disciplinary action up to, and including, dismissal. 

In order to assist employers, Simply-Docs has updated its Harassment and Bullying Policy to include, among other things, a section on third party harassment of individuals by customers, clients or visitors.

The contents of this Newsletter are for reference purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Independent legal advice should be sought in relation to any specific legal matter.

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