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Tips to tackle workplace bullying

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Anti-Bullying Week came to an end on Friday and finished with the disclosure that Home Secretary Priti Patel had breached the Ministerial Code by bullying staff at the Home Office, according to an internal government report.

It is important that employees are treated with dignity and respect at work with employers promoting a fair and supportive working environment. To mark the end of anti-bullying week, we have put together a short article on how to identify bullying in the workplace and top tips to tackle it.

How to identify bullying in the workplace

Bullying and harassment are terms that are often used interchangeably. Harassment is legally defined under the Equality Act 2010 (EA 2010) but it frequently comes as a surprise to many that there is no specific definition of or protection against ‘bullying’ in employment law.

Even though there is no single piece of legislation that deals with bullying it may be covered by:

  • The EA 2010, if it is linked to one of the nine protected characteristic of age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation. 
  • The Employment Rights Act 1996, especially the ‘detriment’ provisions.
  • Criminal or civil provisions under the Protection from Harassment Act 1998.
  • A common law and legislative duty to take reasonable care for the safety of employees, and  abide by the duty to ensure that reasonable care is taken to provide employees with a safe place of work, safe tools and equipment, and a safe system of working.  

ACAS has defined bullying in a broadly similar way to the definition of Harassment under the EA 2010.  Bullying may be characterised as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

Bullying behaviour takes many forms and can include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • Denying someone’s promotion
  • Not being allowed to join social events and groups
  • Unwelcome remarks about a person to include comments about their age, dress, appearance, race or marital status
  • Failure to safeguard confidential information
  • Shouting and swearing
  • Setting impossible deadlines
  • Personal insults
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Physically abusing or threatening abuse
  • Tampering with a person's personal belongings or work equipment

Sometimes employers will be presented with complaints from employees because they are unhappy about how they are being managed. 

Although all complaints need to be taken seriously employers are unlikely to find that following situations constitute bullying:

  • Colleagues expressing differences of opinion
  • Colleagues and managers offering constructive feedback, guidance, or advice about work and behaviour for training and improvement purposes
  • Reasonable action taken by an employer relating to the management and direction of an employee, for example taking reasonable disciplinary action

Tips to tackle bullying behaviour in the workplace

An employer should not underestimate the impact of bullying in the workplace and the harm it can cause. There is a huge cost associated with bullying in the workplace each year and when considering the current economic climate it is even more important to identify and tackle bullying swiftly. Bullying can create problems for the employer including poor morale, loss of productivity, absence, resignation and even litigation.

In order to ensure that everyone understands what can constitute bullying, the boundaries and how to raise or deal with bullying behaviour an employer should:

  • Develop a clear policy on bullying. This can include a commitment to deal with bullying sensitively and swiftly, examples of unacceptable behaviour, the steps the employer will take to prevent bullying and how to deal with complaints.

  • Communicate the policy to all managers and employees.

  • Train employees on the policy specifically on what is bullying, how to raise a complaint and how it will be dealt with.

  • Train managers on what is bullying and how to identify and deal with it.

  • Take all complaints seriously by carrying out a prompt investigation.  If necessary be prepared to take disciplinary action against the perpetrator.

  • Identify a selection of methods to assist the victim and to deal with the perpetrator including: informal action, counselling, mediation, formal investigation and disciplinary procedures.

  • Offer support where appropriate and necessary.

The risk to an employer who fails to tackle complaints of bullying can include potentially expensive litigation and significant reputational damage, and we encourage you to seek advice and assistance at the outset.

Talbots Law is here to help and our experienced employment law specialists can offer you support with grievances, disciplinaries and mediation.

For information and advice, please email Reyhana Koser or Ellie Robinson-Brady, or call our team on 0800 118 1500 to find out how we can help you and your business today.