Bullying in the workplace

Part one: Businesses need to take a firm stand on bullying. Knowing it when they see it is the first step

Published:  19 October, 2017

Harassment and bullying remain significant workplace issues despite growing awareness. The Acas Workplace Trends 2016 report said anti-bullying policies had been widely adopted in Britain but were not adequately dealing with this behaviour: “last year over 20,000 calls were taken by the Acas helpline on bullying and harassment with some people reporting truly horrifying incidents including humiliation, ostracism, verbal and physical abuse.”


Typical behaviours
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), many typical harassment and bullying behaviours can manifest in the workplace, from unwanted remarks and physical contact to shouting and persistent unwarranted criticism.

Research shows employees affected are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers, and want to leave the organisation. The CIPD says “organisations should treat any form of harassment or bullying seriously not just because of the legal implications and because it can lead to under-performance, but also because people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work.”

An organisation’s public image can be badly damaged when incidents occur, particularly when they attract media attention. This was the situation that Audi Reading unfortunately found themselves in at the end of May 2017 as a coroner examined the suicide of an apprentice mechanic. While the behaviour of some of the staff was found to be unacceptable, the coroner held the dealership free of blame for the death as there were numerous other external influences that led to the suicide. But that finding didn’t stop a torrent of ill-informed abuse being directed at the dealership and staff.


The law
Bullying is not specifically defined in law but Acas gives a definition. It says that “bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

Acas goes on to note that bullying is subjective – one person may consider it firm management while another may feel that they’ve been bullied. The CIPD says that the legal position with respect to bullying is complex as “there is no separate piece of legislation which deals with workplace bullying in isolation.” It adds: “Bullying might be part of discriminatory behaviour, or related to a myriad of different legal principles and specific laws.” 

The CIPD points out that cyber bullying might catch out employers: “Detrimental texts sent via mobiles or images of work colleagues posted on external websites following work events could amount to bullying. As this would be seen to have its origins in the workplace, the employer could be liable.”

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating and intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. Fundamentally,” says the CIPD, “the law protects individuals from harassment while applying for a job, in employment and in some circumstances after the working relationship has ended, for example, in connection with a verbal or written reference. There is also protection for people against harassment on the basis of their membership or non-membership of a trade union.”


Unacceptable behaviours
Acas suggests employers tell staff that the following, as an example, will not be tolerated:

  •  Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone verbally or physically ridiculing or demeaning someone, say by picking on them or setting them up to fail
  •  Exclusion or victimisation
  •  Unfair treatment
  •  Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
  •  Unwelcome sexual advances
  •  Making threats or comments about job security without foundation
  •  Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism
  •  Preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities

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