Emma Hamnett: What can employers do to stamp out workplace bullying?

Emma Hamnett workplace bullying

Failing to curtail the threat of workplace bullying increases the risk that an unhappy employee will issue a claim for harassment or unfair constructive dismissal in an Employment Tribunal (ET).

These claims are costly, time consuming, bad for the reputation of the business, and demoralising for staff.

There is no definitive legal list of what constitutes bullying. For the purposes of a harassment claim, which bullying behaviour might provoke, the test is whether the unwanted conduct created an undignified, intimidating or offensive environment for the victim.

Bullying could include spreading rumours, being uncivil, excluding colleagues, threatening, verbal or physical abuse, undermining someone or excessively monitoring their work.

Employers have a duty of care to provide a safe working environment; therefore, they may be vicariously liable for the unlawful acts of an errant individual.

A common theme in workplace bullying is senior staff misusing their authority to intimidate junior employees; however, bullying can also come from a client or customer, which still carries the risk of a claim against the employer, if it has not taken steps to protect employees from third parties.

Employers should also consider the fact that modern technology, the speed at which we communicate, and the shield of social media, all enable bullies to reach their targets on numerous platforms.

So, what can employers do?

A good start is a workplace policy framed around anti-bullying and harassment, underlining the message that bullying is not tolerated and will be dealt with as a disciplinary offence.

However, a policy is only worth the paper it is written on unless it is followed carefully and there are true sanctions for breach, including taking actions against managers and senior employees, who are often the root of bullying or intimidating behaviour.

Employers must make it clear that all complaints will be dealt with thoroughly and confidentially; employees should not be scared to raise incidents of bullying.

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Finally, they should ensure the organisation’s grievance policy is easily accessible and understood, providing a clear route to bringing instances of bullying and harassment to the attention of management.

Emma Hamnett is partner in the Manchester employment team at Clarke Willmott