Bullying at Work

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) have published a report on bullying within the workplace, which indicates that reported incidences of bullying are increasing. In the last 12 months, ACAS have taken around 20,000 calls relating to bullying and harassment. Whilst the issues raised range from those being sensitive to managerial action to those suffering verbal and physical abuse, it is clear that bullying in the workplace is still an issue which can cause problems for employers as well as employees.

One issue highlighted in the report is the difficulty in defining what bullying is. ACAS has previously defined bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, denigrate or injure the recipient”, with an even broader definition covering ill-treatment, interpersonal conflict, or unacceptable and unwanted behaviours being used in some quarters. Bullying, therefore, covers a wide range of behaviours. Some examples provided include being yelled at, eye-rolling, verbal abuse and being “talked down to” in a humiliating way in front of colleagues.

Not dealing with bullying in the workplace can be extremely costly. One consequence may be an employee taking time off from work either with illness or just wanting to try and avoid the behaviour. More damaging, though, is if the bullying continues for a prolonged period of time, leading to the employee resigning and pursuing a claim for constructive unfair dismissal on the ground that the employer has breached trust and confidence in allowing the behaviour to continue. In addition, there are the knock on effects of lower staff morale, reduced productivity and high labour turnover. It is, therefore, important to be in a position where you can deal with such issues effectively.

Traditional approaches to addressing such issues tend to veer towards waiting for employees to report problems and then going through formal procedures. While these do address some of the issues raised, it may not deal with potential underlying problems which may be the cause of such behaviour, with the behaviours becoming engrained within the organisation if, for example, managers are not adequately equipped to deal with them. In addition, some employees will be put off from raising any issues for fear of repercussions or the issue not being dealt with adequately, especially if the person they are complaining about is their manager or someone more senior.

Therefore, while having formal policies in place is important, there are other steps which could be taken to try and reduce the risk of problems in this area occurring which work from the ground up. These can include introducing behavioural standards across the organisation, empowering staff to talk more openly about issues and training relevant managers in how to deal with conflict situations. In order to identify what steps could be introduced, it may be helpful to undertake a review of working practices and policies.

Director of Legal Services

James Tamm

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