On 21 February, the government ran an advertisement in a Sunday newspaper, encouraging employers to visit its website for free employment advice on preventing workplace harassment and violence. It seemed almost too ironic then, when Christine Pratt, chief executive of the National Bullying Helpline, went public with allegations that No 10 staff had phoned the charity for advice about bullying.
The row erupted after allegations in a book by the Observer's chief political commentator, Andrew Rawnsley, in which he discussed Gordon Brown's behaviour towards staff. Although employers of all shapes and sizes are familiar with the issue of bullying, it rarely hits the headlines. But against the backdrop of a fast-approaching general election the issue is gathering momentum.
Forms of bullying
A 2009 Unison survey suggested that bullying at work has doubled in the past 10 years, with one in three staff surveyed claiming to have been bullied in the previous six months. The most common forms of bullying included excessive monitoring and criticism, exclusion and isolation, intimidation, public humiliation and being treated in a rude and disrespectful manner.
I have seen a number of cases where managers have belittled employees in front of colleagues, set unreasonable targets, and in recent times used e-mails and text messages outside office hours to put pressure on particular individuals.
Claims at employment tribunals
Employees who have been subjected to bullying by a work colleague, often by someone in a senior position, can bring claims for bullying or harassment at an employment tribunal. Now is probably not the time to remind the government that, despite calls from businesses, there is no fee payable for pursuing such legal claims. In fact, individuals can easily launch legal proceedings by filing a claim online.
An employee who has been bullied may, if they have completed a year's employment with their employer, resign and claim constructive dismissal - effectively arguing they have been forced out of their job by unacceptable behaviour. In such cases they could recover compensation of up to £65,300. In addition, the employee may suggest that the bullying behaviour has been based upon, for example, their race, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion and/or a disability.
Such conduct can amount to unlawful discrimination, unlawful harassment, or both - and in those cases the employee isn't even required to have completed a year's employment. The individual can remain on the payroll, leaving the employer with the somewhat difficult task of continuing to employ the person while at the same time defending a claim that they have made against the business.
The employee, meanwhile, can not only name the employer as a respondent to the tribunal proceedings but can also name the individual who bullied them. That individual could ultimately be found liable to pay compensation to the employee.
It is worth remembering that tribunal hearings are held in public and regularly attract the attention of the press. Such adverse publicity can be extremely damaging for any business, particularly at a time when many are under significant economic pressure.
To minimise the risk of bullying, employers should encourage appropriate behaviour from all employees in the workplace. They should not tolerate unacceptable conduct, should address complaints promptly and appropriately, and should provide reassurance to potential victims that concerns will be taken seriously.
Some companies encourage the use of free helplines such as the National Bullying Helpline, which provide confidential support for employees who have problems either within or outside of the workplace.
Since her original media appearance, Pratt's stance has changed a little, but it remains the case that the confidences of the employees concerned have been broken.
Helplines of this sort succeed on the basis that employees are reassured that the matters that they raise will be treated in confidence.
Anyone who manages people should remember that there can be a very fine line between being 'demanding' and being a 'bully'.
Jane Hobson is a partner at Weightmans
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