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Bullying in the workplace

This month included anti-bullying week, so we decided to take a look at what constitutes as bullying and how employers can ensure it doesn't happen in the workplace.

There is no legal definition of bullying in the workplace, but Acas defines it as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied”.

Although bullying doesn't fit into any specific legislation, that doesn’t mean it isn't protected by law. If the bullying is related to a protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation) then there is protection under the Equality Act. The Act includes harassment, which is bad treatment related to one of the protected characteristic, and victimisation which refers to bad treatment towards someone who has made (or is believed to have made) a complaint in relation to a protected characteristic. Victimisation also occurs if a complaint hasn't actually been made yet, but someone suffers bad treatment because it's suspected they might make one.

Employees also have an implied right to be treated fairly and with integrity and respect in the workplace. Under health and safety regulations, they also have the right to a safe working environment. If an employee is being bullied and, therefore, feels their employer has breached these rights, then they could resign and claim constructive dismissal at an Employment Tribunal.

Lastly, if the bullying has resulted in mental distress or a personal injury, an employee could bring a personal injury claim against their employer in the civil courts.

It is widely reported that employees are a business's greatest asset and that happy and appreciated staff leads to higher levels of productivity, an increase in loyalty and better staff retention. Good relationships between colleagues and managers also leads to more collaborative working.

Friendships and "having fun" make work a far more enjoyable place, however, it is important for employers to identify when 'fun banter' is actually inappropriate behaviour as it could expose them to a claim. To ensure this doesn't happen, we advise employers to take the following steps:

  • Make sure there is a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bullying and that appropriate measures are in place to deal with any issues that arise
  • Ensure managers and colleagues are trained on inappropriate behaviours and how to manage them
  • Ensure managers and colleagues have easy access to clear policies on equal opportunities, as well as grievance, anti-bullying and harassment policies
  • Deal with any informal/formal concerns promptly, even if the employee doesn't want any action to be taken
  • Create a culture of inclusion and transparency which promotes professional behaviours.

It can be difficult to see where the line should be drawn when it comes to banter and when it goes too far, but a key way of addressing this problem is to tackle the work place environment and encourage open communication.

If you'd like any help or advice regarding bullying in the workplace, please get in contact with Claire or Rebecca in our employment team.


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