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
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