Are there bullies in your office? And where do you stand?

Legal opinion by Bina Patel

The Home Office is currently in the media spotlight over bullying allegations but no employer can afford to ignore the problem of workplace bullying these days.

A recent CIPD report revealed that 15 per cent of employees claim to have experienced workplace bullying in the past three years.

More worryingly, 24 per cent of those polled believed that such issues are swept under the carpet at work.

Bullying can take many forms – from subtle to overt behaviour, from verbal to physical, from single incidents to serial occurrences.

In some cases, specific managers can be the problem, in others it can be the organisation in which a wider culture has developed where employees fear raising complaints or repercussions if they do.

Bullying can lead to performance issues, lost productivity, absenteeism, high staff turnover, mental health issues for employees and even reputational damage for employers.

Of course, this is nothing new. But as more and more awareness is being raised about bullying and harassment, by the likes of #MeToo, for example, news headlines and more generally by mental health campaigns, we are seeing an increase in complaints.

bina Patel lawyer
Bina Patel: employees are becoming more intolerant

Employers need to be mindful of the growing shift in employees who are no longer willing to tolerate unacceptable behaviour and are becoming more confident and willing to speak out.

So what can employers do to ensure a zero-tolerance culture within their organisations?

The first step must be to think about the company’s culture. Leaving bullying issues to HR to deal with is not sufficient. It is no good if the role-models at the top of a business don’t lead by example and walk the talk.

Ted Baker is a good case in point here. Management should ensure their behaviour reflects company values and that decisions and actions support anti-bullying in practice.

In this day and age, an effective anti-bullying and harassment policy is essential too. This sends a strong message that bullying will not be tolerated and should set out guidance on what constitutes bullying; how employees can raise concerns or complaints; procedures to deal with concerns fairly, sensitively and promptly; and the potential action to be taken against bullies.

One of the key changes we have seen in the workplace since the #MeToo movement has been that employers are taking complaints more seriously and ensuring that thorough and proper investigations are being conducted.

The trend in some larger organisations is to appoint external independent investigators to ensure impartiality and a fair process. Employers are also being braver in taking action against perpetrators.

Victims may bring claims for personal injury or protection from harassment. Alternatively, they may want to negotiate an exit with a financial settlement

Historically, a solution may have been simply to move the complainant to a different team or change their reporting line. Now employers must investigate and address bullying issues with the perpetrator head-on.

Managers must speak to them so they aware of the potential effect of their behaviour on the individual. I have also had clients who found a mediation process valuable whereby both parties can air their concerns and find a better way of working.

Although a cliché, training staff to recognise bullying behaviour is not to be overlooked. It can really open people’s eyes to words, actions or behaviour they may not have realised could be offensive to others.

It is also no longer wise to simply view bullying as relating to a particular manager or department, or as isolated incidents. Management and HR teams should join the dots and look at patterns.

Feedback given in employee appraisals and exit interviews can be very helpful here. Employers are also becoming increasingly mindful of putting in place sufficient support for complainants.

Whilst employee counselling and assistance programmes might not be practical for smaller firms with limited budgets, other efforts to promote well-being in the workplace and a healthy workplace culture can go a long way.

Victims may, of course, still seek legal recourse through the Employment Tribunal by bringing claims for unlawful discrimination or harassment or unfair constructive dismissal.

In extreme cases, victims may even bring claims in the civil courts for personal injury or protection from harassment. Alternatively, they may want to negotiate an exit with a financial settlement.

Most employers will, however, know that prevention is better than cure. It is no longer acceptable for employers to hide behind ignorance, their organisational or industry culture or powerful individuals to avoid responsibility and accountability.

Bina Patel is senior associate in the employment team at Kingsley Napley LLP