Bullying at work continues to give UK business a headache. Stephen Levinson, employment specialist at Keystone comments on the BBC's recent report ‘Respect at Work' for Retail Gazette
This article was written for and first featured in Retail Gazette
Bullying at work continues to give UK business a headache. The allegation that 140 live cases are being investigated in the BBC makes clear that however august the institution the problem continues to plague management and workers. The claims about the BBC follow their publication of ‘Respect at Work’, an in-depth review that contains many helpful pointers for management everywhere.
Damage to reputations can be considerable
The potential liabilities of employers are extensive. There is the risk of being taken through the employment tribunal for unfair dismissal if the behaviour is so bad it would justify a claim that the employer has breached its duty of trust and confidence. Also a claim may be made under the Equality Act 2010 if the bullying manifests itself in relation to protected characteristics under that Act. This is fairly common and many claims of sexual or racial harassment are in truth bullying cases. Then there is also potential liability under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1977 where employers may be made liable for failing to control and prevent bullying by their employees. Under this Act claims may be also be made in the criminal courts. The reputational damage of these cases can be considerable and the cost of dealing with complaints internally and externally extremely bruising on budgets already under pressure. Perhaps most important for managers is the well-researched fact that bullied staff are likely to be far less effective and productive workers.
One of the reasons the retail industry needs to be particularly alert at the moment is that the current economic malaise makes it far easier for the workplace bully to escape detection. The fear of repercussions that may result from raising complaints was highlighted by the BBC report because of fears about the potential impact on careers, reputational damage and encouraging more of the same treatment. Unless employees have great confidence in the integrity of management the additional fear of unemployment or the increased difficulty of finding another job will add to these factors and many bullies will get away with their misbehaviour to the detriment of the business.
A focus on boundaries
Anyone who manages another employee needs to know what is and is not permissible behaviour. As the BBC report put it there needs to be focus on the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The structure of many retail businesses split into individual branches or departments means the number of those in a position to dish it out is large and managing them all in a way that establishes a uniform standard of acceptable conduct is particularly difficult. However stating what needs to be done about this is not difficult, the real problem is implementation.
Effective training is key
Plainly the first stage is to have appropriate policies setting out what is and is not acceptable and making sure that everyone knows what those policies are. Effective training is the key to such communication and any prudent business will keep records of that training. The training needs to be focussed not only on appropriate behaviours but also about perceptions of behaviour and the self-awareness of mangers. Many toxic bosses simply do not appreciate how unwelcome and unpleasant their behaviour appears to others. All of these elements are absolutely essential to any defence by employers to legal proceedings but taking this legalistic approach, whilst essential in dealing with the problem in the tribunal or a court, is far from all that needs to be done.
Unless there is a clear and recognised commitment from top management to come down hard on bullying all the policies and training in the world will be ineffective. The cynicism amongst a workforce produced by being seen to allow powerful people to avoid sanction will quickly destroy the effectiveness of any policies and training. Values statements that are regularly betrayed are completely counter-productive. All sorts of avenues are created on paper to encourage reporting of bullying, example are grievance procedures and whistleblowing hot lines, but none will work well unless there is confidence in the integrity of management to take complaints seriously and act upon them at every level.
Speed of action is vital
In addition to the required level of commitment is appropriate speed of action when any complaint is made. Every text on employment law will stress the need for a thorough investigation of complaints, which is fair enough, but the emphasis should also be on dealing as speedily as possible. This is especially true for bullying cases given the levels of anxiety and stress that is often involved.
Finally it would do many organisations good to consider a different approach to dealing with complaints. Traditional grievance and disciplinary processes have their value but there other mechanisms that have been successfully used such as incorporating mediation process into the routes available to deal with complaints. Employers who have done this well report a considerable saving of management time and a significant reduction of staff leaving.
The short point is that a management culture that tolerates bullies will be less efficient and profitable than one that does not. Are you satisfied you have done all you should?
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.