Big Brother-style bullying

Shilpa Shetty is bullied by Jade Goody (Rex)The recent media hype surrounding the alleged bullying of contestant Shilpa Shetty in the Celebrity Big Brother house caused a public furore and a surge of complaints to TV regulator Ofcom.

The antics of three contestants in the show – Jade Goody, Jo O’Meara and Danielle Lloyd – outraged viewers after Bollywood star Shetty was the subject of a barrage of demeaning and, some believe, racist comments.

As a result of the dramas in the Celebrity Big Brother house, the National Bullying Helpline has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of calls it normally receives.

And according to the helpline’s founder, Christine Pratt, most of these callers are employees who are linking what’s going on in the reality TV show with what they are experiencing in the workplace. “Shetty has become a role model for all those who have lost confidence due to workplace bullying issues,” she says.

Follow the ringleader

Psycho-analyst Dr Valerie Sinason agrees that the programme demonstrates what millions of people cope with in their everyday work life, and how instinctive it can be for people to gang up and bully without realising what they are doing. She cites housemates O’Meara and Lloyd as perfect examples of how people attach themselves to a ringleader.

However, she warns that just because someone takes on that role, it’s important not to bully them back.

“It’s equally important that the public don’t demonise any of the contestants now they’re out of the house. Bullying the bully is also bullying,” she explains.

“Goody is not a member of the BNP or the National Front. She is insecure, and when it comes to foreignness in this country, people can be frightened when someone is different from them.”

Sinason says that Goody’s behaviour towards Shetty highlights an almost universal problem in the workplace. Rather than rushing in to apportion blame, she advises managers and colleagues to stay calm and think about the consequences of disciplining a staff member for bullying. She also advises employers to be on the look-out for higher levels of absence and sickness, which may come as a result of bullying at work.

Pratt believes that over the next few weeks, employers are likely to see an increased number of staff grievances raised in the workplace, as employees realise that bullying, or any form of discrimination, is not acceptable. “Watch this space,” she warns.

Know your rights

Two Asian women recently called the helpline in tears after realising that they were victims of bullying but had just put up with it before the media attention around Goody brought bullying and discrimination into the limelight. “Employees are asking what action they should take and want to know what their statutory rights are,” says Pratt.

One distressed Muslim caller set up a tape recorder to capture her colleagues making racist comments after she saw Goody and her fellow housemates slating Shetty behind her back.

Know what’s going on

Pratt advises that even if employers have all the relevant anti-discrimination policies in place, senior managers and diversity teams should ‘walk the shop floor’ and ensure they are fully aware of what’s going on around them, instead of hiding away in ivory towers.

Ignore the issue, and it could end up costing a small fortune. “Employers are likely to pick up the tab for any staff grievance about bullying,” argues Owen Warnock, employment law partner at Eversheds. This includes racial, sexual, age and disability discrimination.

Last year, company secretary Helen Green won a payout of more than £800,000 after she suffered a four-year stint of bullying at a City bank.

Warnock says that the Protection of Harassment Act (1997), which was initially brought in to deal with stalkers, is now being used to bring forward claims for all other areas of bullying that cannot be pinned under a specific discrimination Act.

He advises: “The most important thing is to set standards of behaviours and policies, plus making sure all staff are trained in these matters. Managers as well as supervisors should always lead by example.”

False sense of security

The key is not to get into a false sense of security if an employee who is the butt of practical jokes is seen to be fine and laughing them off, concludes Warnock.

“Employees can be teased relentlessly and give back as good as they get out of self-defence, but this can be a cover-up for their true feelings,” he says. “This could still lead to that member of staff leaving the company, and then claiming for constructive dismissal.”

Investigating bullying in the workplace

Richard Linskell, employment partner at Dawsons law firm, offers these tips to employers who suspect Big Brother-style bullying at work:

  • Be alert to any sign of discrimination or bullying and investigate immediately. Otherwise, the employer not just the bully – could be held liable.
  • If you suspect someone is being bullied, take them aside privately and ask how they are feeling. Let them know they can make a formal complaint.
  • In a serious case, it may be appropriate to suspend the person who has been accused of carrying out the bullying, or to move them to another department while the investigation takes place.
  • Gather witness statements from other colleagues before commencing any formal proceedings against the alleged bully. It is important to consider not just the employee rights of the ‘victim’, but also of the accused employee.

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