Bullying and harassment in the workplace: Employer guide to UK law


Bullying. The very word can send shudders down the sternest of spines. Sadly, it happens in all walks of life and the work environment is no different.


It is therefore extremely important for employers and HR staff to understand what it is and how it manifests itself within their workplace. In addition, they need to reassure employees that everything is being done to create an environment that deters this from manifesting.


What is bullying?


Described as a persistent pattern of mistreatment from others that causes harm, workplace bullying in the UK can come in a number of forms. While everybody will have an idea about what it is, the range of behaviours that constitute bullying show just how wide-ranging it can be and it is something that creeps into the workplace if left unchecked.


It can not only affect a person's ability to function effectively at work, but can also badly damage their personal wellbeing, self worth, family and relationships. In short, it can attack all facets of a person, inevitably leading to a dread of coming into work, which will also bring down productivity.


Bullying can include, but is not restricted to:


  • Arguments and rudeness.

  • Exclusion of colleagues.

  • Ignoring people and the work contributions they make.

  • Criticising employees in a way that is deemed unacceptable.

  • Overloading people with work.

  • Making an environment hostile to an individual.


"Put simply, policies will only work effectively if people have the confidence to use them. This is more likely where the workplace culture provides a shared sense of responsibility that unacceptable behaviours can and should be reported."


The act of bullying somebody can again come in many forms. It doesn't have to be one or a group of people directly to another person. These behaviours can materialise over the phone, on email, or by letter.


The victim doesn't even have to be present. If these behaviours are taking place and making a person feel uncomfortable or even worse, that is bullying.


Is bullying at work a new problem?


Unfortunately, evidence suggests workplace bullying is still prevalent.


Towards the end of 2015, Acas published a study that suggested bullying is increasing in Britain.  


Evidence of this includes the fact that the Acas helpline received in excess of 20,000 calls about workplace bullying experienced in the previous year, with some going as far as saying they have been driven to thoughts of self harm and suicide.


"Employers have a duty of care to their employees which means that they must take reasonable steps to prevent bullying and harassment. Bullying can cause stress and lead to employment tribunal claims against employers."


Sir Brendan Barber is the Chair of Acas, and he outlined the type of organisations most likely to suffer from bullying.


"Our analysis reveals that bullying is on the rise in Britain and it is more likely to be found in organisations that have poor workplace climates where this type of behaviour can become institutionalised.


"Businesses should be taking workplace bullying very seriously as the economic impact of bullying-related absences, staff turnover and lost productivity is estimated to be almost £18 billion."


While he accepts anti-bullying practices are 'widespread' in Britain, Sir Brendan says they are clearly "falling short in reducing the overall prevalence of this form of unwanted behaviour."


"Statistics from Harvard Business Review on incivility in the workplace and the costs to a company showed that, among those who had suffered from incivility, almost half of respondents decreased the time they spent at work."


Types of bullying


Physical


In a workplace environment, this is probably the least likely. It's not a schoolground after all, and we're all too mature for that aren't we? That being said, it would be naive to say it won't or hasn't happened in some workplaces.


Verbal


In the statistics we saw, verbal was the most common method of bullying. In the Family Lives survey, 73% of respondents said they experienced verbal bullying.


Ways in which this could emerge in a working environment includes by spreading rumours that are malicious and insult people. This can be on the grounds of sex, age, race, disability, religion or sexual orientation.


Name calling is an obvious way of verbally bullying somebody, as is threatening behaviour through word of mouth. All of these can make the victim feel uncomfortable or scared.


"The Acas helpline received in excess of 20,000 calls about workplace bullying experienced in the previous year, with some going as far as saying they have been driven to thoughts of self harm and suicide."


Verbal bullying can also be criticism of an employee's work, or unnecessarily blaming them for something - all of which can fall under the bracket of another bullying method.


Psychological


Psychological bullying can also include verbal, but more often than not, it is a cerebral way of unsettling somebody. A manager could be loading unrealistic work demands on an employee, or at the other end of the spectrum, excluding them from responsibilities they are well capable of undertaking.


A staff member may have been criticised on an email or memo. If they are shown this for no apparent reason other than to humiliate, then again, this is a form of bullying. It amounts to unfair treatment as well as being demeaning.


A bully could also be exerting the psychological form of the act by consistently ignoring an employee, failing to involve them in activities or conversations, and being generally rude.


Once again, this exclusion is unfair, amounts to bullying and could land a company in real trouble if complaints are made and not dealt with professionally.


What should employers be doing?


A strong strategy is needed because - although secondary to employee needs - if left unchecked, bullying can be costly to employers.


This can be in the form of official complaints that can lead to compensation, or indirectly, due to the profound impact bullying can have on an employee.


"Our analysis reveals that bullying is on the rise in Britain and it is more likely to be found in organisations that have poor workplace climates where this type of behaviour can become institutionalised."


There is a risk of extended absenteeism if the victim or any witnesses feel uncomfortable or threatened. This leads to low morale which then hits company productivity.


Indeed, statistics from Harvard Business Review on incivility in the workplace and the costs to a company showed that, among those who had suffered from incivility, almost half of respondents decreased the time they spent at work.


The poll, which surveyed 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, also showed that two thirds of respondents who were bullied saw a decline in their performance, and even more believe the commitment to the organisation waned.


A quarter of people also said they took their frustrations out on customers; all of this can prove detrimental to overall company productivity.


That won't be the only consequence of low morale; it can lead to increased labour turnover, further unrest and ultimately, a poorer service to customers. In this context, it's a no-brainer for organisations to make sure they do all in their power to minimise these risks.


"I acknowledge that identifying unwanted behaviours can be difficult. But by creating standards for what constitutes acceptable behaviours should be a feature of all workplaces."


As an employer, there are a number of procedures that can be put in place to guard against bullying in the workplace.


Put clear policies in place


HR should write a clear and formal policy outlining how the business will not tolerate instances of bullying. Detail about how to spot the signs would also be useful to add here.


It might be worth including employees in this process, as there is a chance they may have seen the signs that lead to bullying.


These points were made to Agency Central by Chelmsford-based Backhouse Solicitors. Their spokesperson said that these policies should point towards "zero tolerance".


"Employers can minimise the risks by ensuring that they have a clear bullying and harassment policy in place. Ensuring should have a zero tolerance policy on bullying."


Any policy, the company says, should also let employees who are experiencing bullying know who they should speak to when making a complaint. Similarly, employees who aren't being bullied but know that it is taking place should be given the same guidelines for making a complaint.


"Businesses should be taking workplace bullying very seriously as the economic impact of bullying-related absences, staff turnover and lost productivity is estimated to be almost £18 billion."


If any complaints are raised, it is important that employees know that they will be dealt with fairly. What should not happen is that employer / HR professional dawdle with the complaint, fail to make it a priority or give it due care and attention.


It smacks of unprofessionalism and will no doubt add to the anxiety of the complainant.


Giving the employee the option of confidentiality would be a smart move, as again that should allow them to work better while any formal procedure is taking place.


The behaviour of senior members of staff and HR professionals is key in all of this. They set the standards they expect from employers. As such, they should set the example that staff can follow with how they conduct themselves, talk to and about colleagues and customers.


This sets a very clear message to employees about what will and will not be tolerated.


What does the law say?


Bullying can be a complex issue in the workplace because one manager's tough love could be verbal and psychological bullying to the employee on the receiving end. The definition of bullying can vary from one person to another.


"Employers can minimise the risks by ensuring that they have a clear bullying and harassment policy in place. Ensuring should have a zero tolerance policy on bullying."


The fact there is no actual law to prevent bullying in the workplace confuses matters. However, the Equality Act 2010 covers workplace bullying and harassment, which is defined as "behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated and offended."


While there is no set law against bullying, there is for harassment, which carries many of the traits seen in bullying.


The law protects harassment in relation to age, disability, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership.


The spokesperson at Backhouse Solicitors said that although "there is no formal law on the prevention of bullying in the workplace," employers need to take the necessary steps to avoid this happening.


"Employers have a duty of care to their employees which means that they must take reasonable steps to prevent bullying and harassment. Bullying can cause stress and lead to employment tribunal claims against employers."


Workplace culture key to combatting bullying


It is clear from our research that the vast majority of businesses take bullying very seriously in the workplace and as such, anti-bullying policies are widespread.


"HR should write a clear and formal policy outlining how the business will not tolerate instances of bullying. Detail about how to spot the signs would also be useful."


However, according to Susan Clews, Chief Operations Officer at Acas: "anti-bullying policies are not necessarily enough on their own."


Just as important as the policies themselves is the environment in which they are implemented.


Susan continued: "Put simply, policies will only work effectively if people have the confidence to use them. This is more likely where the workplace culture provides a shared sense of responsibility that unacceptable behaviours can and should be reported.


"I acknowledge that identifying unwanted behaviours can be difficult. But by creating standards for what constitutes acceptable behaviours should be a feature of all workplaces."


By putting in place the strategies that allow this to happen, it will give any business the best possible chance to minimise workplace bullying.



Written by John Train