How should an employer respond to allegations of bullying at work? This article looks at some of the common features of bullying and offers tips for employers on how to deal with the situation.

It’s already yesterday’s news that the Home Secretary, Ms Priti Patel, was investigated due to an alleged breach of the ministerial code in relation to workplace bullying. The independent investigation found witnesses saw her shout and swear at civil servant colleagues working with her.

Ms Patel apologised stating that she did not intend to upset people. It is actually irrelevant as to whether she had the intent to upset or not.

Ms Patel’s line manager apparently vowed to “stick with Prit” possibly indicating that he accepted the lack of intention as mitigation. Whilst there is no Employment Tribunal claim for bullying per se, it can lead (as it did in this case) to employees treating themselves as having been constructively dismissed.

In most cases, a tribunal would almost certainly look at the effect of the conduct, rather than the perpetrator’s purported intention or lack thereof.

Real world consequences of bullying at work

Any employer in the real world (outside of the wonderland of Westminster), which is so dismissive of upset and resignations occurring because of bullying needs to know that there are sanctions that await them.

A maximum award for a claim for Constructive unfair dismissal (other than connected with whistleblowing or discrimination) is £88,519 or a year’s salary, whichever is the lower. Humiliating an employee by shouting at them in front of others or intimidating them by doing so in private, are most likely to be deemed to justify the employee treating themselves as unfairly dismissed.

Common features of bullying

There is no set list of behaviours or even a definition of bullying, but there is plenty of guidance that bullying may include:

  • Insulting someone or spreading rumours about them;
  • Copying memos criticising someone to people who do not need to know;
  • Setting someone up to fail;
  • Excluding someone;
  • Picking on someone or singling them out for worse treatment than others;
  • Misuse of power or position; and
  • Making threats or comments about performance, job security without foundation.

Whilst bullying is often not overt, and may manifest itself through email, social media, and even using others as agents, there are plenty of cases in which we find excessive supervision by setting clearly unrealistic targets, overzealous monitoring, deliberately hurtful feedback, public humiliation/rebuking in front of others, undermining authority repeatedly, and attacking the person rather than their performance. In the writer’s view, these sorts of management behaviours can be regarded as bullying.

Robust management and allegations of bullying at work

It is important also to debunk some of the popular misinformation that performance management and robust conversations are impermissible in the workplace.

Robust management in one workplace may be received very differently than in another. Knowing the norms in each workplace is important. Context is extremely important. Using legal means to ensure the best people are retained in your business, and rejecting the least able/suitable are appropriate motives. The trick is in implementing measures legally to achieve these aims.

Using the correct performance management tools correctly will not be deemed to be bullying. Neither is being honest (with courtesy and respect) with those that are failing to perform. Having straightforward conversations with colleagues, based on observations and evidence provided in a timely manner, recorded and leading to actions to improve employees’ performance, will be supported by Tribunals.

Where an employee complains about bullying, an employer should appoint an investigator to look for evidence of intent to cause the person distress. Where the management behaviour was excessive, unnecessary and unreasonable, the employee’s complaint would, if a fair hearing is held, be upheld.

It is well known that bullying workplaces are characterised by poor performance, a loss of respect for managers and supervisors, low staff morale, high turnover, low productivity, and absenteeism.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees. If an employer breaches the duty of mutual trust and confidence (implied in every employment contract) by failing to stop an employee being bullied at work, the employee may be entitled to resign and bring legal proceedings for constructive unfair dismissal. Employers are generally liable if one of their employees is the perpetrator of the bullying.

Three simple steps for Employers

#1 – Policy on bullying at work

It is important to have a good, clear workplace policy on bullying, making it clear that bullying is a disciplinary offence and will not be tolerated.

#2 – Training and leading by example

Managers should be trained in all aspects of management, but particularly in issues surrounding bullying, including recognising bullying, and grievance handling. All senior staff should model good management behaviours. The safety and wellbeing of staff is paramount and good management training will ensure that employers are in the best possible position to deal with any grievances properly.

Failure to provide appropriate training to staff and managers may lead to criticism in the employment tribunals and may lead to an increase in compensation payable by the employer in a successful claim against it.

#3 – Dealing with grievances fairly and sensitively

Employers should ensure they have fair and up to date procedures for handling complaints and grievances from staff. The fear of bias undermines confidence in staff who may not report bad behaviours as they have no confidence that complaints will be dealt with sympathetically and in confidence.

However, employers do need to strike the right balance otherwise, reasonable management behaviours can be “spun” to sound much worse than they are. In dysfunctional companies, once a complaint becomes known, others may “jump on the bandwagon” to further their own ends. Not every allegation of bullying will be true and often, the complainant will genuinely be a poor performer deflecting the spotlight.

If a business has a performance culture, then the parameters of robust management need to be made known to managers. Managers who are brave enough to implement performance improvement plans should attract the support of the Board, unless it is clear that they have overstepped the mark in the way that Ms Patel did.

This is a complex area involving the interaction of policies, ethos and prevailing culture and industry norms. When in doubt you should seek advice before taking action.