A recent House of Lords decision confirms that employers may be liable for damages if they negligently fail to protect staff from bullying or harassment at work.
It is recognised that bullying in the workplace is a significant cause of stress-related illnesses such as depression, anxiety and insomnia.
There is no specific legislation yet in the UK dealing with this problem. But that is not to say victims of bullying at work have no legal redress. For example, it is well established that harassment at work on grounds of sex, race or disability may amount to unlawful discrimination.
More generally, if an employee is driven to resign as a result of bullying or harassment at work, he or she may be in a position to recover compensation for unfair constructive dismissal. Employers are also potentially liable under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, generally known as the “anti-stalking” legislation.
The House of Lords’ recent decision in Waters v the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, 27 July 2000, unreported, has confirmed another avenue of redress for bullied employees whose treatment results in physical or mental harm.
WPC Waters broke a work taboo by complaining about a serious sexual assault by a fellow police officer at a time when they were both off duty. She alleged that, as a result of her complaint, she was ostracised, victimised, threatened and maliciously criticised by colleagues over a protracted period. As a consequence, Waters claimed she suffered psychiatric injury.
The House of Lords’ judgement clearly establishes that an employer can be liable for physical or psychiatric injury suffered by an employee as a result of its failure to take reasonable steps to protect him or her against victimisation or harassment which it knows or ought to know is taking place.
The Lords went on to hold that, although police constables are office-holders with no contract of employment, they are nonetheless “quasi-employees” subject to the same principles as an ordinary employer-employee relationship. Accordingly, there were no public policy grounds preventing Waters’ claim from being considered on its merits.
The important lesson from this case for employers in general is that they are potentially liable to pay staff substantial awards or damages if they are negligent in failing to take proper steps to tackle workplace bullies.
The best antidote is for employers to develop a comprehensive, official policy for dealing with bullying in the workplace in all its various forms (including sexual, racial harassment and so on).
A policy of this kind should provide clear and accessible procedures for employees to raise complaints, and make all staff aware that bullying behaviour of any kind will not be tolerated and will be met with serious disciplinary consequences. Also, during the recruitment process, employers should make checks on applicants’ backgrounds and look out for evidence suggesting violent or abusive tendencies.
• Employers who tolerate bullying or harassment in the workplace are vulnerable to various different types of legal action.
• In particular, employers can be liable for damages for their negligence in failing to take suitable precautions to protect employees from victimisation.
• Best practice is to develop an official policy on bullying at work, making clear that it will be treated as a serious disciplinary offence.
By Richard Lister, a lawyer in the employment department at Lewis Silkin