The topic of bullying at work was in the mainstream media in April 2023 after the resignation of the then deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab after an investigation in to claims of bullying made against him; especially after his underwhelming acceptance of the allegations against him, famously stating that “in setting the threshold for bullying so low, this inquiry has set a dangerous precedent” in his resignation letter.
Dominic Saab’s resignation came less than two years after Priti Patel (then Home Secretary) was accused of bullying and was found to have been in breach of the ministerial code.
What is Bullying?
When it comes to dealing with bullying at work, as a business you need to identify or define what ‘bullying’ is, so you can ensure your employees have a clear understanding of what it actually means.
In guidance from ACAS they say that there is no legal definition of ‘bullying’ but it is described as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:
- Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting
- An abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.
This behaviour could be a pattern or a one off, face to face, on social media, emails, phonecalls, outside of work or in work, and it can go unnoticed by others. It could be among peers, or in a senior/junior relationship (and despite what you might think, a senior person can be bullied by a junior person).
The union Unison also has some clear guidelines and defines bullying as persistant offensive, intimidating, humiliating behaviour, which attempts to undermine an individual or a group of employees.
Likewise Indeed.com has some advice about bullying, describing a workplace bully as someone who repeatedly harms or mistreats employees by causing them pain or engaging in other forms of physical or verbal harassment.
Legal firms often describe bullying as offensive, intimidating, malicious, insulting or humiliating behaviour, or an abuse of power or authority which attempts to undermine an individual or group of employees, and which may cause them to suffer work-related stress.
There is no shortage of information about what bullying may involve, leaving organisations with no room to claim ignorance on the subject.
Examples of bullying
Bullying takes different forms, so to illustrate the breadth of possibilities, it’s helpful to outline some examples to bring the topic to life. Examples could include:
- Setting someone up to fail / setting impossible targets
- Spreading malicious rumours about someone
- Making humiliating comments about someone online
- Undermining someone’s authority
- Undermining someone’s competence with constant criticism
- Ridiculing someone openly, by blaming or criticising them in front of others
- Making threats about the security of someone’s employment if they exercise a right, or make a reasonable request
At work, it’s unlikely the bullying will take a physical form, and it will be more verbal and emotionally challenging behaviour.
If someone expresses upset about another person’s behaviour towards them does that automatically make them a bully? Unfortunately, there are shades of grey when it comes to this issue. The investigation into a complaint will be key in identifying if it was a reasonable response to someone’s behaviour.
If a someone says, “Your shoes are an interesting colour!” and the recipient of the comment states they are offended or feel belittled, does that mean they’re being bullied? The question is whether it was reasonable to expect someone to be offended or feel belittled by a comment.
However, if someone says, “Come on, old man, do you need a sit-down?!” even as a joke, the question of whether it was reasonable to be offended by that comment may be easier to answer. But it’s rarely that easy, so the investigation into the behaviour and the context needs to be done with an open mind, and with the definition of bullying and the relevant complaints procedure front and centre.
Direct financial risks to your business
The most obvious risk employers will be concerned about is the risk of a legal claim. So what does that actually mean, and what is the risk?
Under the Equality Act 2010, if the bullying is due to a ‘protected characteristic’ then it is classed as harassment. Protected characteristics are:
- Gender reassignment
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
- Pregnancy (also covered under direct discrimination legislation)
Any harassment claim at an employment tribunal under the Equality Act 2010 has an uncapped potential award. This means it’s difficult to quantify the potential financial risk, but the cost of defending a claim will be substantial (by current estimates, upwards of £15k), without including the compensation the Tribunal panel may award, if the claim is successful.
The other risk of a bullying claim is for constructive dismissal (Unfair Dismissal). This would arise if the employee feels the bullying is so bad they have no option but to leave. Awards for Unfair Dismissal are capped at around a year’s salary, or c.£90k, so still represents significant financial risk.
Indirect financial risks to your business
The impact of having a workplace which tolerates (or fails to address) bullying could be serious. Your workforce will operate in a state of fear, afraid to make mistakes or put forward new ideas. This does not engender creativity or engagement at work, both of which will affect your productivity.
Your attrition rates will increase as employees leave what they feel is a ‘toxic’ culture. As a result your recruitment costs will go up, and you will lose talent.
In addition, do not underestimate the power of reputational damage. Social media platforms provide an opportunity for unhappy employees to share their experiences. With the advent of websites like Glassdoor, employers who fail to deal with bullying will quickly be exposed, making it even harder to attract and retain talent. It may also affect the success of the business. Potential customers may choose a competitor due to the reputation you have as an employer, directly hitting your bottom line.
Practicalities of dealing with it
The first thing to do is make sure you have an anti-bullying and harassment policy place. You should ensure it’s shared with all your workers, and that it is followed. This is a communication and training piece, AND a leadership one. Leaders must lead by example, otherwise the policy ‘isn’t worth the paper it’s written on’ (to coin a phrase).
Best practice is for employers to create an inclusive culture. Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD states workplaces should have a “safe culture where people can speak up, where differences are respected and celebrated.” Research by the CIPD shows that employees are looking for an inclusive and supportive culture.
As well as having a policy and communicating it to everyone, leaders and managers need to ‘walk the walk’. Managers need training to recognise bullying, encourage people to flag concerns to them, and ensure they investigate and address it. There should be a consistent approach, therefore following policy and procedure is key. The investigation must have integrity and confidentiality so any subsequent decisions are fair and reasonable, and are seen as such.
Dealing with bullying is never easy, undoubtedly, but it needs to be done reduce risk to your business. If you have concerns about culture in your business and you don’t know where to start, get in touch here.