October 1, 2018

Workplace Bullying – a Comprehensive Walk Through

Following our comprehensive walk through on harassment, we’re now looking specifically at workplace bullying. Read on to understand your responsibilities as an employer and find out how to proactively avoid and discourage workplace bullying.

What is bullying?

Although it’s not actually defined by law, ACAS characterises bullying as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

Which laws govern workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is a complex area because there isn’t one separate or specific piece of legislation that deals with it. Instead, there’s a long list of different legal principles and laws that might be relevant:

  • breach of contract, usually breach of the implied term that an employer will provide reasonable support to employees to ensure that they can carry out their job without harassment and disruption by fellow workers
  • the common law obligation for an employer to take care of workers’ safety
  • personal injury protection involving the duty to take care of workers arising out of the law of Tort
  • Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
  • Public Order Act 1986
  • Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, dealing with special types of intimidation
  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
  • Employment Rights Act 1996, for example, constructive unfair dismissal
  • Protection from Harassment Act 1997
  • Protection for whistleblowers under the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998
  • Human Rights Act 1998

How to avoid and discourage workplace bullying

1. Put an anti-bullying policy in place

Start by making things as black and white as you can for your employees. To achieve this, your policy should answer and explain the following:

  • What is your organisation’s stance on bullying?
  • What does bullying look like? (Give examples).
  • Does your policy extend to work related activities? E.g. the Christmas party
  • What are the damaging effects of bullying and why won’t you tolerate them?
  • What are the implications? E.g. disciplinary action, personal liability costs.
  • How will the organisation treat allegations? I.e. quickly, seriously and confidentially.
  • What is the role of managers and unions/employee representatives?

Your policy should clearly state and emphasise that every employee is responsible for their behaviour towards others. In addition, it should tie into your grievance procedure and disciplinary policy.

It’s important to monitor the effectiveness of your policy so make sure you schedule a regular review.

2. Ensure employees can get help

You’ll need to outline this process clearly in your policy too.

Include:

  • Who to contact to understand what steps can be taken (this might be a manager or HR contact)
  • How to take a complaint forward and what the timescales are for formal procedures
  • What their rights and personal responsibilities are (you can outline these in the policy, in an induction and also provide training)

3. Watch out for ‘ cyber bullying’

This could take place via mobile phones or on social media sites. For example, sending nasty text messages, posting personal information or inappropriate photos and publishing mean comments on Facebook. These could all amount to bullying and as an employer, you could be liable. Particularly if it takes place during or immediately after a work event.

4. Get your employees on-board with the policy

It’s hard for business owners and senior managers to keep their eye on everything that happens in the office. As such, your employees play a really important role in making the workplace a safe and pleasant environment.

This takes two forms:

1. What the employee does. All employees have a responsibility to behave in a way that supports the company’s policy on promoting dignity and respect at work (as outlined in your anti-bullying policy).

2. What the employee sees. Employees should be encouraged to stand up for their colleagues and challenge inappropriate behaviours. You may want to outline the process on how they can do this in your policy, or even provide some training to help them with this.

Remember: individuals can be prosecuted under criminal and civil law and forced to pay compensation. It’s therefore vital they take action if they observe harassment and bullying.

5. Develop a culture of respect

Writing an anti-bullying policy and communicating it to your employees is a good first step. Next, you’ve got to make sure everyone adheres to it, all of the time. Here are some tips to help achieve a culture of respect:

  • Lead from the top. Organisational culture is defined by the values and behaviours of the people in it. If you’re a senior leader, your every move is being watched. Therefore, what you do and how you treat people has a massive influence on your company’s culture.
  • Measure and track improvements. You can’t know that you’re improving if you’ve not measured your baseline. Start by asking questions in an (anonymous) employee engagement survey. This will help you understand how employees rate the culture of your organisation and how safe they feel. Next, you can decide what you want to improve and set some goals that you can measure against in your next survey.
  • Make it a continuous improvement thing. So you’ve got your policy, you’ve done some surveys and things are on the up. What’s next? Time to move on to the next big task? Nope. Because this one never stops, and as soon as you become complacent, things might slip. To keep it up, work it into your long-term strategy as part of your quest to be an employer of choice!

6. Get your managers involved

Line managers play a vital role in addressing intimidating behaviours. So ensure they make it clear to their teams that bullying will not be tolerated within the organisation. If acts of bullying do occur, managers should treat all parties with sensitivity, as well as offering access to support, such as an Employee Assistance Programme or ‘EAP’ (this is an offering coming soon from Moorepay – we will keep you posted). It’s important they also keep matters relating to any incident completely confidential.

7. Provide advice and counselling

This might include the offer of free services to employees (e.g. EAP). Alternatively, you should provide a trained person inside the organisation, who can discuss an employee’s options and help resolve the problem. And don’t forget to offer guidance counselling and support to the employees whose behaviour is unacceptable, not just to the victims.

8. Try mediation

Mediation can help improve relationships between employees. In addition, it can ease or even eliminate the stress associated with formal investigations. As a result, this can reduce the likelihood of defending Employment Tribunal claims, and paying the associated costs.

What employers should do about workplace bullying if it takes place

Initiate a formal procedure

If you’ve tried an informal approach and it’s not working it’s time to initiate your formal procedure. Particularly if the bullying behaviours are serious or persist, or if the complainant prefers this approach.

You’ll need a clear policy to deal with disciplinary issues including bullying and harassment.

Carry out an investigation

Treat formal allegations of bullying as a disciplinary offence. This will require an investigation that should include:

  • A prompt, thorough and impartial response
  • Taking evidence from witnesses
  • Listening to the complainant’s version of events
  • Listening to the alleged harasser’s version of events as well
  • A time-scale for resolving the problem
  • Complete confidentiality in the majority of cases
  • Accurate and detailed record taking

For detailed information on how to chair a successful disciplinary hearing, read this blog.

Take action!

If a complaint is upheld, you might need to transfer one of the employees involved to another part of the organisation. But be sure to avoid a breach of contract if you transfer the perpetrator, or else you could face a claim of constructive or unfair dismissal.

What are the repercussions for employers if workplace bullying occurs?

Employers as well as individuals can be forced to pay unlimited compensation where discrimination-based harassment has occurred. This may include the payment of compensation for injury to feelings.

Support for Moorepay customers

If you’re an existing Moorepay customer and have questions about workplace bullying, please don’t hesitate to contact our Advice Line on 0845 073 0240, our team are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year.

If you’re not already a customer and would like to find out more about our HR consultancy services, download our free brochure.

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About the author

Philip Warnes

Employment Tribunal Consultant