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It's not all about Mr Brown ...

by Access Legal


Recent media attention around whether or not the Prime Minister bullied staff threatened to obscure the real problem of bullying in the workplace and the serious and harmful effects it can have on employees.

What is bullying?

Bullying is hard to define. What one person might regard as an acceptable management style could be regarded as unacceptable bullying by another.

It is very much something that is affected by the experience of the victim and their reaction to their treatment. This could include feelings of fear, intimidation or powerlessness. The position will also depend to some extent on the sector in which the employer is operating and the particular environment in which the employee is carrying out their role.

While at one end of the spectrum there are behaviours which are clearly not acceptable such as physical or verbal abuse, bullying does not have to be a single extreme action.

It could also be more passive and subtle for example, being excluded from being given information or being excluded from events.

At the opposite end of the spectrum even apparently innocuous 'banter' and teasing could result in the recipient feeling bullied.

Bullying could be carried out by a single person for example, a line manager, or by a group of colleagues.

Examples of behaviour which might be considered bullying include:

Research has shown that even those who are not the target of bullying themselves can feel stress if they witness bullying of others.

Whatever form it takes, all employers should take dealing with bullying in their workplaces seriously, not least because it often leads to ill-health and absenteeism, which ultimately costs the business money.

What are the effects of bullying?

Employees react to bullying in different ways. Some common reactions are:

What can you do about it?

There is no express legal right not to be bullied. However, if bullying behaviour is linked to a protected characteristic such as sexual orientation, race or sex an employee may have a claim for harassment.

Harassment is defined as unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating the recipient's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. A single unwanted act can amount to harassment.

However, there are other ways in which an employer may be legally liable in a bullying situation, for example, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a duty to provide staff with a safe place and system of work, if they fail to prevent bullying in the workplace then they could be liable.

If you feel it is appropriate you can approach your line manager or HR department to discuss your concerns on an informal basis. If you don't wish to do this or you have tried to do so but it has not resolved the matter then you should consider taking formal action.

Some businesses have codes of conduct or policies that set out what is and is not acceptable behaviour at work and what redress is available to workers who feel they have been bullied. In the first instance you should see if such a policy is available. If not, then your employer should provide a basic grievance procedure (look in the staff manual) under which you can make a complaint.

Raising a formal complaint can be stressful but is usually the best way to get matters resolved. Bullies rely on their victims being too intimidated to challenge their behaviour. If you do not seek a resolution then the problem is likely to be left unchecked for others to suffer.

Once the issue is out on the open your employer must investigate the matter, and if your complaint is upheld must put appropriate measures in place to support you.


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