How to tackle workplace bullying

26 Mar 2020 By Kate Martin

In light of allegations against home secretary Priti Patel of harassing staff in three government departments, Kate Martin explains what employers can do to combat the problem

Although bullying is not in itself a legal claim, it can lead to several legal issues being raised, including discrimination, harassment and/or constructive dismissal. The implications of this can be significant. Employers can face unlimited payouts as compensation for discrimination claims and the reputational damage can be unrecoverable. 

If a claim reaches employment tribunal proceedings, all the information becomes publicly available, potentially damaging the company regardless of the outcome. Even if a legal claim is ultimately unsuccessful, scrutiny of the claims by an employee who feels unhappy can make for uncomfortable reading. In other words, the financial risk an organisation faces if it finds itself at the centre of a bullying claim can be substantial.

Sometimes an employer can inadvertently foster a bullying culture by simply not addressing red flags when they first arise. Obviously, this is extremely challenging for the employee(s) on the receiving end of such behaviour, but it also creates a negative atmosphere that will impact on the wider workforce. Employee engagement, staff morale and business productivity are all likely to suffer in an unhappy workforce. On top of this, it also creates considerable legal risk.  

The most practical way for businesses to avoid this scenario is to try and create an environment where bullying doesn’t happen in the first place. It is impossible to guarantee, but employers can put themselves in a good position by putting in place the following measures:

Offer training

Most importantly, employers should provide high-quality training and support to their managers, so they know how to catch any potential bullying issues early on before they ever become a real problem. This is a real skill in itself, and many managers have never been given the tools that would allow them to feel confident in tackling these sorts of issues. This inevitably leads to managers allowing issues to fester, and just hoping they will go away, which they frequently will not.

Create an anti-bullying policy

Employers need to provide clear guidance on what constitutes bullying, as some behaviours might not be recognised as bullying by certain individuals. By actively encouraging employees to recognise what could amount to bullying behaviour, it shows them that, as an employer, you are making a conscious effort to try and tackle the issue. Setting clear behavioural boundaries for staff also makes it easier to take action against those who choose to ignore them, which in turn helps to reduce legal risk.  

The policy should also contain a clear process for raising and addressing bullying. Having a fair and transparent process for dealing with any allegation of bullying helps managers and other leaders to understand how to manage the situation, in the event that they receive a formal complaint. For example, should they treat the allegation as a formal grievance? And, if so, how should the investigation work and who will have ultimate responsibility for the process?

Provide a safe environment to raise allegations

Businesses should empower their employees to feel able to speak up if they feel they are being bullied and this can be done by reassuring individuals that if they do raise allegations of bullying then this will be treated sensitively and they will not be subjected to any detriment as a result. On a practical note, this gives employers more of a chance to resolve issues early on, before they become more serious, more costly and more difficult to sort out. If an employee feels able to raise something informally, there may be no need to begin a formal investigation, and it should take up minimal management time. 

Ultimately, when it comes to trying to avoid bullying happening under your watch as an employer, prevention is always going to be the most effective method. Having robust systems in place to create a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, coupled with a safe environment to discuss any concerns, is the best way to achieve this.   

Kate Martin is an associate in the employment team at JMW Solicitors

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