Make 2016 the year to stamp out workplace bullying

Andrew Masters

Partner & Head of Employment

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January 18, 2016

Categories Employment Law

ACAS’ 2016 Workplace Trends report has identified the growing problem of bullying as a serious workplace hazard, likely to feature prominently in the year ahead.  In the last year alone ACAS received over 20,000 calls from employees reporting incidents of public humiliation, ostracism, verbal and even physical abuse.

As employers and HR Partners move into 2016, hopeful of a successful year it is worth taking a moment to reflect on this growing problem with a view to stamping it out in one’s own organisation. With bullying, as the ACAS November 2015 discussion paper Seeking better solutions, tackling bullying and ill treatment in Britain’s workplaces demonstrates, the damage and cost to both business and individuals is devastating.

For individual victims, bullying results in a range of psychological and physical health problems, often affecting their relationships with family and friends, and for some, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorders.

For businesses, direct costs include those associated with sickness absence, labour turnover, loss of productivity, occupational health and litigation costs, while indirect costs include the loss of goodwill and the waste of organisational resources in dealing.

What is bullying?

There is no standard definition and notions vary.  ACAS  has provided a broad description  as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

It is worth pointing out that while the concept of bullying is closely related to that of harassment, legally they are separate animals. While harassment includes unwanted behaviour because of a protected characteristic as defined under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA), bullying is not as specific and can take place in isolation to any particular characteristics.

Having said this, ACAS have identified particular  sub-sectors where  the incidence of bullying is higher and these include people protected under the EqA in any event, including ethnic minority workers;  women in traditionally male-dominated occupations; workers with disabilities or long-term health problems; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

From the 20,000 calls received by ACAS in 2015 examples of bullying included conduct such as being yelled at, eye-rolling, verbal abuse, being ‘talked down to’ in a humiliating way in front of colleagues, as well as more concerted patterns of ill-treatment such as ostracism.

A case which stands out in my mind as illustrative is that of Green v DB Group Services (UK) Limited [2006] EWHC 1898 (QB) . Here the bullying resulted in the Claimant’s nervous breakdown and a decision to move out of the corporate world altogether. It was widely reported in the press at the time given the financial compensation awarded to the Claimant, of £800,000.

From her statement for the legal proceedings she provided the following examples of inexplicable behaviour from her colleagues on a daily basis:

  • Ignoring me or staring silently at me, often with their arms crossed. This was done in a way that was plainly intended to intimidate and unnerve me;
  • Greeting and acknowledging other members of the Secretariat department in a very overt manner, in order to highlight the fact that they were not speaking to me;
  • Excluding me from conversations with other member of the Secretariat department by either talking over me or pretending they could not hear anything I said;
  • Waiting for me to walk past the area of the office in which they sat before bursting out laughing;
  • Interfering with office administration by removing my name from circulation lists, hiding my post from me and removing papers from my desk;
  • Standing inches away from my chair and chatting very loudly, making it difficult for me to make or receive telephone calls (in relation to one of the perpetrators).

Ending bullying in the workplace

A starting point is to ensure formal procedures including anti-bullying and harassment, grievance and whistleblowing policies are in place. They should be clear, easily accessible and written in plain English.  Ideally they should be brought to the attention of staff at induction and the contact details of managers trained to respond should be provided.

However, the release of such documentation is unlikely to be enough to put an end to bullying and more is required.  Below are some useful suggestions by ACAS:

  • Managers need to be alert to unwanted behaviours and trained in dealing and responding.
  • ACAS research has found that organisational climates or cultures can institutionalise and ‘normalise’ ill-treatment and bullying behaviours. In some extreme workplace environments, bullying can actually be seen as a rational strategy to deliver outcomes. It is here that those in leadership positions should challenge the prevailing culture highlighting its inevitable damage.
  •  An organisation-wide commitment is required to align behaviours with values centred on respect and wellbeing.
  • Agreed standards of behaviour should be reviewed and regularly updated.
  • There should be practical measures for the early identification of bullying behaviours.
  • Informal resolution should be encouraged with open conversations between teams and managers. In some situations mediation may be appropriate.

In all circumstances there must be a concerted effort to tackle bullying head on and with a view to making it a thing of the past.

For further information contact an employment law specialist in our legal team on 01227 763939.