Put the bullies on the back foot

In November 2005, Personnel Today and the Andrea Adams Trust released the results of their annual survey into workplace bullying. The survey revealed that 59% of the respondents had specific policies and procedures in place. Asked to assess the effectiveness of those procedures, just over 55% said these policies enabled their organisations to resolve the incidents satisfactorily, but more than 23% said they did not. The most common reason offered for that failure was management’s unwillingness to acknowledge the problem and the ‘prevailing management style’.

Dignity at Work Bill

There is no doubt that bullying is one of the most destructive forms of harassment in the workplace. The TUC’s solution is a new ‘dignity at work’ Bill, which would outlaw bullying and, according to general secretary Brendan Barber, would help employers better get to grips with “this ugly phenomenon”.

But the TUC idea is not a new concept, as such a Bill was put forward as a Private Members Bill in the House of Lords in 2001. That Bill specified that a dignity clause would be implied into every contract of employment and a breach of an employee’s right to dignity at work would include:

  • behaviour on more than one occasion which is offensive or abusive
  • unjustified criticism on more than one occasion
  • punishment imposed without reasonable justification
  • changes in the duties or responsibility of the employee to the employee’s detriment without reasonable justification.

The proposed Bill also suggested a statutory defence for the employer where:

  • the employer has a ‘dignity at work policy’ and has taken reasonable steps to enforce it
  • the employer takes all reasonable steps to remedy any loss suffered by the complainant.

It was envisaged that complaints would be brought before a tribunal and that the tribunal might order the employer to pay compensation, clear the rights of the person bringing the complaint or recommend that the employer take action, which would show that there was no longer a breach of the employee’s right to dignity at work. The Bill also said that a breach of employee dignity could amount to constructive dismissal.
Unfortunately for the TUC, it was one of those Bills to fall by the wayside.

Alternative approaches

Part of the reason that employers find bullying difficult to tackle is that it often takes place in private and the dynamics between the bully and the victim are very complex, which makes it difficult to legislate our way out of the problem.

But in October, the conciliation service Acas took an alternative approach to workplace conflict.

While everyone connected with business appears to live in mortal terror of the ‘enterprise culture’ being suffocated by regulation, the Acas Model Workplace appears to be an intelligent response to the problems of conflict in the workplace and could actually answer a number of employer concerns.

The model provides a strong counterbalance to the unhealthy belief that everything undesirable can be eradicated by legislation. In our highly-regulated workplace, employers are losing the confidence to attack problems of sickness, capability and indeed bullying. And although some may dismiss the Acas Model Workplace as a Utopian ideal, it deserves closer inspection.

The first thing to say is that it is well-written, clear and concise and is helpfully divided into three sections:

  • Put systems and procedures in place
  • Develop relationships
  • Work together.

As to be expected of an Acas publication, the thrust of the model workplace is the promotion of a more inclusive and open culture and it puts forward simple, straightforward arguments for establishing proper workplace procedures, explaining your plans, rewarding fairly and working safely.

Under the heading ‘develop relationships’ it looks at trying to help relationships between individuals, managers and employees to flourish. It suggests that if everyone is treated fairly, differences are respected and valued. If managers understand the need for employees to balance personal and business needs then it is more likely that the common goals for the organisation will be achieved.

In the ‘work together’ section, Acas argues that in designing a model workplace, trust is important, but this does not happen overnight. It says it is sensible to focus on issues rather than personalities and highlights the need for the employer and the employee to take account of each other’s legitimate concerns and interests. It also admits that these principles are some of the more difficult to implement.

The point is that if a more open workplace is developed and the right policies put in place, including a strong grievance policy that addresses the issue of bullying, it then produces an open culture in which bullies must find it much harder to thrive. Dignity at work is achieved not through legislation, but from trying to work to a model that has respect as its central plank.

This is not Utopian nonsense either. The aspirational nature of this guide makes the Acas Model Workplace worth reading, particularly by the employer who feels a loss of power as a result of what it perceives as over-regulation in the workplace.

The model may reach for an ideal, but if we are to tackle problems such as bullying in the workplace, an employer who adopts the model, or at least aspires towards it, will see some benefit in terms of the relationships with the people in its workplace. The model may just provide the workplace that is needed – one that empowers more than it merely regulates. In the Acas Model Workplace, it is hard to see how people would avoid responsibility for their own actions. It seems a far more effective way of promoting dignity at work than regulation could ever achieve.

Tim Randles is head of employment at the Guildford office of Laytons solicitors


The Acas Model Workplace www.acas.org.uk

Laws in place to prosecute workplace bullies www.personneltoday.com/32574.article

Is a strong manager a bully? www.personneltoday.com/32533.article

HR needs to lead by example on bullying www.personneltoday.com/32568.article

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