In a nutshell

Bullying in the workplace, unfortunately, is not an unusual rarity and is a fairly common occurrence. This is evidenced by the growing number of grievances being raised by employees, that then can lead to a claim in an Employment Tribunal.

Whilst there is a legal definition of harassment, there is no such equivalent for bullying. However, it is now part of daily language and can take many varied forms. It can range from name calling, threats and cyber-bullying to spreading rumours, exclusion and ridiculing someone in public.

The methods used to bully can also take many forms particularly in a technologically advanced age. Mobile phones, email and texting have all been used as a route to bullying, and its impact can be costly and devastating. It leads to absenteeism, which hurts any business financially and logistically. In extreme cases it has lead to depression, loss of self-esteem and suicide. As an employer, it is essential that you take reasonable steps to deal with bullying.

The same principle applies if one of your customers or clients bullies one of your staff. You are always responsible for the welfare of your staff, inside and outside of the workplace (for instance when the employee goes to a customer or client’s premises or is abused by the customer/client by email or phone) and so you must take steps to avoid or deal with any instances of bullying by a customer or client.

What are the risks?

  • An employee may claim that workplace bullying had made their position untenable, so they had no choice but to resign and claim (constructive) unfair dismissal.
  • If the bullying is related to a person’s sex or race, there is the possibility of a discrimination claim which can result in unlimited compensation for the victim.
  • When bullying causes the victim to become depressed, that particular condition can amount to a disability. If you don’t take reasonable measures to help the depressed individual that can amount to disability discrimination.
  • Allowing bullying to exist and fester, can also be said to be creating an unsafe working environment which may mean liability for you under health and safety law.

Key steps to managing this issue

1. Have a policy on dealing with bullying

You have to be able to show that, as an employer, you have taken all reasonable steps to deal with an act or acts of bullying. The starting point will always be the existence of a policy or a written process for dealing with bullying.

Such a document should be easily accessible to all staff; not buried deep in your intranet. It should be easy to read, and contain examples of what bullying is, guidance on how to recognise the signs of bullying, advice on what to do if you are being bullied or are having to deal with it and the process that will be followed if bullying is alleged. The policy should be reviewed and updated every year.

Your managers should not only be aware of this policy but should have reasonable working knowledge about what to do when bullying rears its head.

2. Appoint an anti-bullying champion

It is imperative that management buy into the concept of stamping out bullying. Institutionalised bullying is not a myth; many managers ignore potential bullying seeing it more as strong and effective management. A particular member of management should be championing the cause of eliminating bullying in the workplace.

This individual should emphasise to all managers the importance of being a positive role model and taking allegations of bullying seriously. The champion should oversee the process of having robust policies and training on this subject, and regularly report to all managers on how many instances of bullying have arisen over the course of a year, how those issues were dealt with, and what the outcome was in each case.

A report on bullying can be made without naming individuals, thus ensuring confidentiality.

The most important characteristics of the anti-bullying champion is a knowledge of the subject and a passion for eradicating bullying in the workplace. That person should be known as the “go to” person, if an employee wants to discuss any issues related to bullying.

3. Deal with bullying properly

If an allegation of bullying is made make sure you:

  • Follow your procedures.
  • Obtain all the details from the complainant (ie dates, who was present, what happened and what impact it had on the complainant).
  • Keep notes of all discussions.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Give the accused an opportunity to respond.
  • Don’t be afraid of speaking to a customer/client if they are involved.
  • Carry out a thorough investigation.
  • Act quickly.
  • If necessary, ensure the guilty party is dealt with appropriately ie disciplinary warning or dismissal.
  • Keep the complainant informed.
  • Offer support to the victim eg time off to recover and regular discreet chats with the victim to ensure their welfare.

4. Train all staff on the subject

Knowing what to do when bullying is raised comes from referring to the policy as often as possible, for example at any regular team meetings. Training line managers on all aspects of bullying is another way of embedding such knowledge. A culture of knowledge can create a cultured environment where staff thrive and develop, as opposed to suffering in an organisation that has a soft attitude to bullying.

The training should challenge managers about their attitude to bullying and how it should be managed. Case studies and real-life examples (like the FutureLearn scenario included below) are a rich source of discussion and debate.

It is worth having such training on an annual basis. If possible you should offer all of your staff this type of training. This creates a transparent culture and allows a sensitive topic to be openly discussed and not avoided.

5. Adopt a zero-tolerance culture

By disciplining and dismissing a serious instance of proven bullying ie an expletive laden dressing down in public, you are sending out a powerful message. You are saying you care; there are no exceptions to the rule; you take it seriously and you will impose the appropriate sanction depending on the circumstances.

This must come from the top and trickle down to all levels of management. A thorough investigation will usually reveal the truth, and when it comes to bullying you and your staff should chant the mantra, 'See it soon, sort it fast and stamp it out'.

Tools and resources

Download the bullying policy checklist to help you start to create your bullying policy (remember that it’s always worth contacting a consultant to help you refine your policy) and use the FutureLearn scenario to raise awareness of how to prevent and deal with any instances of your bullying in your organisation.

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