According to ACAS, bullying and harassment complaints have steadily increased in the UK since 1998 and the costs associated with dealing with bullying amount to a staggering £18 billion.
This blog will explore the issue of workplace bullying including an employer’s duties in tackling workplace bullying.
What is workplace bullying and harassment?
Although bullying and harassment can include the same behaviour –the slight difference between the two terms is that bullying does not have a legal definition in the Equality act.
Under the Equality Act 2010 Harassment is defined as “Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.
Examples of ‘protected characteristics’ include
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual Orientation
Bullying can be defined 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”.
Some examples of bullying behaviour include:
- Spreading malicious rumours
- Exclusion or victimisation
- Unfair treatment
- Making threats or comments regarding one’s job security with no foundation for doing so
- Preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.
- Overbearing supervision or other misuse or power
Two common types of bullying found in workplaces are cyber bullying and psychological bullying.
Cyber-bullying refers to “the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature”.
An act of cyber-bullying can be done via:
- Offensive email
- Email Threats
- Posts and Comments on Social Media
- Spreading Gossip Via Group Messaging
Cyber bullying is just as common at the more ‘conventional’ methods of bullying. However, unless reported, it’s more difficult for management or HR to spot cases of cyber-bullying.
Psychological bullying is when one performs actions that unsettle someone’s mental state. For example, a manager might load unrealistic amounts of work on an employee, or they may wish to frustrate them by withholding work which they could perform. Being rude, ignoring or failing to involve an employee may also all constitute bullying.
The HSE emphasise that workplace bullying usually refers to a pattern of behaviour over time as opposed to isolated incidents.
Of the two, only the term harassment is defined clearly under current legislation. This means that unless bullying is committed against a ‘protected characteristic’, it isn’t as straightforward when making a legal claim.
What are the effects of workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying can be detrimental to the victim’s well-being.
Victims may suffer from anxiety and stress caused by the fear of experiencing hostile behaviour toward them.
In turn, these can offset other effects including physical effects:
- skin rashes
- high blood pressure
- loss of self-confidence.
The effects of bullying at work can be so great that victims are likely to suffer from stress and anxiety just at the thought of having to go to work. Therefore, the damage that bullying does extends beyond the office, even negatively impacting one’s leisure time with friends and family.
Furthermore, bullying can have a negative impact on the organisation. The effect this can have on an individual’s performance may impact the wider team. Higher absence will mean that colleagues must cover shifts. This can result in even higher absence rates and even higher staff turnover, which will increase recruitment costs. Therefore, it is clear how a workplace that has a culture of intimidating, hostile or offensive behaviour is bad for business too.
What is an employer’s responsibility toward workplace bullying?
Although bullying does not have a legal definition under the Equality Act, victims of bullying (as opposed to ‘harassment’) are still protected under law.
This is because, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that employers have a ‘duty of care’, i.e. they have a responsibility for the welfare of their employees. Included in this ‘duty of care’ is the responsibility to ensure employees do not have to suffer from bullying at work.
Therefore, failure to tackle bullying is a breach of an employer’s duty to provide a safe and healthy environment to work and would be breaking the law.
In addition, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 states that employers must assess the nature and scale of workplace risks to health and safety, ensuring there are proper control measures in place to avoid and reduce these risks where possible.
As well as a duty of care, it is also in the best interest of the business that bullying is prevented or dealt with swiftly.
What should happen in a case of workplace bullying?
If an employee files a complaint, the employer should investigate the matter as a grievance, and if proven, disciplinary action should be taken against the bully. Such disciplinary action may go as far as suspending the bully.
Depending on what the victim wants, the complaint can be solved informally or formally. Dealing with the case informally is usually the easiest and fastest way. This might include the victim confronting the bully themselves or asking a manager to approach on their behalf.
Why must employers take cases of bullying seriously?
If an employer’s fails to deal with a case of bullying, and the employees quits their job – then they may be eligible to claim constructive dismissal. A more serious case may result in a Personal Injury claim against the employer.
Furthermore, a workplace with a culture of bullying may lead to difficulty in maintaining retention rates, higher absenteeism and low morale and productivity – all greatly affecting the bottom line.
What can employers do to tackle workplace bullying?
Workplace Bullying and Harassment Policies
Employers need to create a workplace culture that rejects bullying. The best way to do this is to include a Bullying and Harassment Policy in the organisations Employee Handbook.
A Bullying and Harassment policy should outline the companies approach toward handling Bullying and Harassment.
It should be designed to ensure that employees understand what constitutes bullying and harassment. Therefore, it might include examples of activities that would be deemed bullying.
It should also outline what employees should do if they fall victim to, or witness bullying.
Finally, it should explain the consequences for anyone who is found out to be bullying a co-worker.
If you need help writing a Bullying and Harassment policy, or entire employee handbooks, please visit our contracts of employments and employee handbooks page to find out more.