Face down the bullies

Bullying can be a nightmare for everyone concerned, writes Sarah Finley. But carefully considered policies can keep it at bay.

No employer wantsto read press headlines saying that its workplace is riddled with bullying. Yet this is not uncommon. For example, in September, British Airways (BA) featured in two high-profile reports about bullying incidents which, even if the allegations are proved untrue, besmirch an employer’s reputation.

To avoid such bad publicity, employers must recognise the importance of dealing with the issue. But how do companies prevent bullying in the workplace, and what measures should they put in place so that staff feel protected and secure?

According to Christabel Oh, associate in the London employment group at international law firm Faegre & Benson, employers must first realise what is classed as bullying. “It involves offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour which, through the abuse or misuse of power, makes the recipient feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated and threatened,” she says.

Employers also need to take responsibility for their staff and recognise that this type of behaviour may go on in their workplace. A spokesperson for the anti-bullying charity Andrea Adams Trust says: “Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassing behaviour. It is in their interests to make it clear to everyone that such behaviour will not be tolerated.”

The TUC says workplace bullying can have a huge legal impact on a company if they don’t deal with the issue. Rob Holdsworth, senior campaigns and communications officer at the TUC, says: “Employers have a legal duty to tackle workplace bullying, harassment and intimidation, whether by supervisors, managers, fellow workers or the public.”

BAE Systems has a harassment and bullying policy which has been in place since 1999, and includes mandatory training on the issue for managers. Staff can also report any harassment or bullying complaints via an anonymous employee helpline.

Deborah Allen, deputy managing director of corporate responsibility at BAE Systems, says that having a recognised policy in place, which employees are confident in, is crucial. “Our policy on bullying and harassment is framed in our UK Respect at Work (RAW) policy, which has been in effect since 2001 and is underpinned by the following key principles: it is the policy of BAE Systems to develop and maintain a working environment wherein all employees have the right, and the ability, to work in an atmosphere free from intimidation of any kind, and are treated with dignity and respect,” she says.

Allen believes that making staff aware of the policy is of the utmost importance. “Our staff are actively informed through a variety of communication channels at work,” she says. “Our policy was launched by the then chief executive officer Mike Turner, followed by face-to-face briefings with key stakeholders across all our sites. Refresher training is also carried out on a regular basis. Guidance leaflets are also issued, and these clearly outline the policy and procedure.”

BAE Systems encourages employees, managers and HR to report any instances where they are subjected, or witnesses to, discriminatory or offensive behaviour. In instances where an informal approach has not led to a resolution, or in the rare cases where such approaches are inappropriate, any employee can raise the issue formally either by accessing the business’ grievance procedure or the RAW complaints procedure,” says Allen.

If a case of bullying is not handled in the right way, it could lead to problems for the company involved. “Staff have the right not to be dismissed if they complain about or refuse to work in unsafe conditions (Sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996),” says Oh. “Where the employer fails to conduct a proper investigation into such allegations, harassment or bullying of an employee can lead to an unsafe condition entitling the employee to resign and claim constructive dismissal.”

Allen has some tips for dealing with a case of bullying. “The language you use is critical, so we try to avoid emotive terms such as ‘alleged offender’,” she says. “You also need a balanced approach, as the process can be equally difficult for both the complainant and the subject of the complaint.”

She also stresses the importance of involving key players. “A process in itself won’t work,” she says. “It needs to be part of a package that includes training and equipping line managers with the skills to create an effective working environment and with the ability to resolve issues effectively.”

BAE Systems views its policy as an ongoing procedure, and something that should be regularly reviewed, incorporating lessons learned from ‘live’ cases.

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anti-bullying policy guidelines

n Have an agreed policy. This should set out what is acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour to all staff. Key parties, including employee representatives, should be involved in putting together this policy. Commitment is also needed from the organisation’s head and the board of directors, as well as the staff. Line managers, who usually have to deal with bullying issues, may need appropriate training.

n The Andrea Adams Trust says anti-bullying policies and procedures should be seen as extensions of an organisation’s equal opportunity, diversity or dignity at work policies. “They also link into grievance and disciplinary procedures. However, the normal grievance procedure will not always be sufficient, and a ‘best practice’ control system should, we believe, be developed for improving the work environment and combating bullying and harassment within the organisation as it will give staff clear guidelines on the type of behaviour you expect,” says the trust.

n HR should define what constitutes workplace bullying. Examples include unwarranted, humiliating and offensive behaviour, or an abuse of power that can cause anxiety to staff. It is HR’s responsibility to ensure every member of staff knows about the policy and perhaps signs up to it. In any case, under the Employment Act 2002, all employers must have statutory minimum dismissal and disciplinary procedures in place.

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