We like to believe that we live in happier, peaceful times and treat one another with a base standard of dignity and respect. Unfortunately, that seems not to be the case, at least not in all UK's workplaces.
ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) recently produced a discussion paper on tackling bullying and ill- treatment in the workplace. That came on the back of ACAS receiving around 20,000 calls related to bullying and harassment over the past year with some callers reporting that workplace bullying caused them to self-harm or consider suicide. Bullying remains an ever-increasing problem that employers must tackle in order to provide a workplace that protects their employees, comply with health and safety rules and prevent costly pay-outs.
So what exactly is bullying?
There is no legal definition of bullying but we can look to the legal definition of harassment as a guide. Harassment is any unwanted behaviour related to a protected characteristic that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. Bullying is not necessarily linked to any protected characteristic however. Examples can include spreading rumours, swearing or using intimidating language, ostracising someone, constantly undermining someone or denying someone a promotion. Often bullying is subtle and can go unnoticed by everyone other than the victim. Reasonable management instructions and performance assessments are not bullying, despite some employees being hyper sensitive to any sort of criticism.
Research suggests that there are increased incidences of bullying within certain groups such as women in traditionally male-dominated occupations, workers with disabilities and workers in health care. Employers in such sectors and industries must be particularly astute to the problem and take steps to stamp it out. Anti-bullying workplace policies and managers with good people management skills are essential. Like any workplace issue, fostering a culture that is free of bullying needs to come from the top down.
Why do people bully others?
In the workplace so many excuses are made for this unacceptable behaviour ranging from ‘it’s just his robust management style’ or ‘it’s just a bit of banter’. New evidence suggests that many adult bullies are not even intentionally acting in a bullying manner, instead the bullying behaviour is a result of a mixture of unrelated factors, most of which usually come down to stress. Offices where colleagues don't trust one another, are overworked and feel competitive with each other are particularly at risk.
How do you stop bulling in the workplace?
Implement an anti-bullying policy and train your managers so they understand what constitutes bullying and harassing behaviour. Ensure that the message is loud and clear that bullying will not be tolerated in your organisation. Build in an awareness of discrimination characteristics to any training as those are often the precursor for bullying behavior. It is important to make clear to employees that all allegations of harassment or bullying will be taken seriously, confidentially and that grievances or complaints of harassment will not be ignored or treated lightly. A failure to deal with bullying appropriately places an employer at risk of constructive dismissal claims.
Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment and can be held liable for any harassment suffered by their employees under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, or if the harassment is related to a protected characteristic, under the Equality Act 2010. For claims under the latter, an employer can attempt to rely on the reasonable steps defence - that is that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment taking place. Training for staff, as referred to above, is an essential part of that defence.
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