Bullying in the Workplace
In November 2020, the highly contentious issue of bullying in the workplace was brought to the attention of the mainstream media as the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was found to have breached ministerial code regarding the proper treatment of staff. Ironically, the controversy came during Anti-Bullying Week and this has highlighted the need for proper guidelines and procedures for handling bullying claims in the workplace.
In an inquiry by Sir Alex Allen, Whitehall’s independent adviser for ministerial standards, Patel was found to have breached the code on numerous occasions. Specifically, the home secretary was accused of humiliating civil servants in front of other staff, moving senior officials to different jobs, shouting and swearing and frightening civil servants.
Although the Patel bullying debacle was unusually high profile, situations like these occur in the workplace all the time and they are often extremely difficult for managers and HR teams to address. The term ‘bullying’ is extremely emotionally loaded, and accusations of bullying are often coupled with accompanying personal, cultural or internal tensions that can make the issue hard to investigate and resolve.
What to look out for
Workplace bullies can appear at all levels of a company’s hierarchy. Whilst the majority of workplace bullies are managers, a substantial minority will be peers or even subordinates.
Workplace bullies often provide great value to the employer, which is why they feel like they can get away with inappropriate treatment of their colleagues. This makes it very difficult for those being bullied to come forward, as they feel their experiences may be ignored.
Workplace bullies come in various forms and perform the act of bullying in several different ways. The act of bullying can take the form of aggressive communication, manipulation, humiliation, disparagement and more. In this context, it is also important to note that bullying can take place entirely over digital forms of communication, or it can take place in a face-to-face environment.
Protecting people’s mental health
The experience of being bullied in the workplace is likely to have a long-term adverse effect on an individual’s mental health. Anyone who has been bullied will attest that it is often a highly traumatic experience and this can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, the precursors to poor mental health. From the employer’s point of view, bullying creates a toxic working environment where there is likely to be a high level of absenteeism and staff turnover.
If employers want to promote a safe working environment and protect their business against potential employment tribunal claims, they will need to mitigate against the long-term, as well as the short-term, effects of workplace bullying. Employers should also be aware that, with the rapid rise of remote working, bullying and harassment is likely to become much harder to detect. However, 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.
One of the first steps for employers is to have, and actively enact, an effective anti-bullying and harassment policy that makes 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 in this regard, Simply-Docs has updated its Harassment and Bullying Policy, expanding the definitions of each in order to give greater clarity to managers and employees.
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.