Bullying in the workplace

The problem of bullying in the workplace has come increasingly under the spotlight in recent years. Recent research suggests that as many as two million people are the victims of bullying at work, and that it is a major cause of stress-related illness in the UK.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can have a detrimental effect not only on individuals, but also on the successful running and profitability of a business. An estimated 18 million days are lost each year as a direct result of the stress caused by bullying, and failure to deal with the issues in good time and in an appropriate manner can harm staff morale and productivity, erode the bottom line, and in some cases jeopardise the reputation of a business.

Recognising the problem

Bullying and harassment can take a number of different forms, some of which are more subtle than others, and there can be a fine line between what some might consider to be a firm system of management, and what others might construe as bullying behaviour.

Bullying and harassment might be broadly defined as any offensive, intimidating, unwarranted or inappropriate behaviour carried out by an individual or a group of people, which has a detrimental effect on a colleague.

Examples of such behaviour could include deliberately excluding a particular individual from promotional or training opportunities, excessively criticising or monitoring an employee, making insulting remarks, perhaps relating to an individual's gender, race, or religious or personal beliefs, and making inappropriate physical advances towards an individual.

Bullying and harassment can have a significant effect on the efficiency and performance of a business. Examples include:

  • Increasing absenteeism and staff turnover
  • Creating an unhealthy working environment, with poor working relationships
  • Reducing the volume and quality of work being produced
  • Creating resentment and a loss of respect for management
  • Wasting valuable time and resources
  • Generating a negative culture throughout the business
  • Increasing the risk of legal claims
  • Damaging the business's reputation

The legal view

All employers have a duty of care towards their staff, and are also responsible for their health, safety and welfare at work. If an employee complains about being bullied or harassed, you must make sure that you respond to their concerns in a sensitive and professional manner, or you could risk facing a claim for constructive dismissal.

There are also a number of laws in existence governing discrimination and harassment in the workplace, specifically in relation to race, gender, religion and belief, sexual orientation, and disability. New rules outlawing discrimination on the basis of age came into force in October 2006. Under these regulations, a disgruntled employee could take a complaint of discrimination or harassment to an employment tribunal.

Resolving the issues

You should have in place a formal procedure and timescale for dealing with bullying and harassment. This includes providing a written statement detailing the grievance, arranging a meeting between the parties, and offering the right to an appeal.

In some cases, it may be possible to hold an informal discussion with the individuals concerned to discuss the issues and agree a plan of action. However, in more serious cases it may be necessary to follow the formal line.

Please contact us for more information on dealing with key staffing issues, and increasing morale and productivity in the workplace.

An employment tribunal is essentially a court, and its task is to hear and adjudicate on employment-related disputes that have arisen between an employer and a member, or members, of the workforce. Although it might lack the strict formality of a court, nevertheless, like a court, a tribunal is obliged to act independently and is not allowed to dispense legal advice.