“Life as an adult really isn’t that different to life in the playground”, said one of the educational psychologists in a recent Channel 4 documentary, “The Secret Life of 4-Year-Olds” set in a nursery. In this one-off documentary the viewer is entertained by a group of 4-year-olds and their comments, such as the whisper of one girl “if the bullyboy troubles you, just bite him”.
The 2014 annual bullying survey  found that 40% of young people experienced bullying before the age of 18 and 34% reported bullying for prejudice-based reasons such as homophobia, racism, religion, disability or cultural differences. With bullying seemingly ever present in education it comes as no surprise that is found in the workplace.
Employers are generally alert to the potential problem of bullying and may have anti-bullying, anti-discrimination and equal opportunities policies to convey the message that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated. That said, what is bullying?
What is bullying?
Bullying is not just experienced by young and inexperienced employees, but by employees of all ages and status. Here at Ashby Cohen we have helped employers and employees such as bankers, teachers and administrative staff with his or her bullying concern.
At the ‘playground’ level bullying could involve colleagues making an employee the butt of jokes making derogatory comments about their appearance, or excluding them from the social life of the workplace. Certain business cultures and environments may present additional problems for employers, such as a boisterous and fast paced trading floor, or a busy restaurant kitchen. Whether the perceived bully intends to bully is irrelevant; rather what is vitally important is whether the bully’s conduct is considered unreasonable in normal circumstances.
Taking the bullying up a notch to big school, the bullying may be from a line manager or supervisor. A manager may be unreasonably critical of the employee’s work, treat them inconsistently (which could amount to discrimination), shout at them or withhold information which prevents them doing their job. Complaints of bullying are sometimes linked to a manager addressing concerns about an employee’s performance. If an employer has performance concerns then they are well within their rights to address this as the employee is employed to do a job. However, even with legitimate concerns an employer must be careful, and at all times be reasonable and respectful in dealing with the employee’s performance.
The consequences of bullying can be costly for both the employee and employer. The employer is presented with time spent managing a difficult and sensitive situation, employees off sick with stress, potential settlement agreements to fund and/or potential legal claims to defend. There are often financial implications for the employee too if they are off sick and invariably the bullying impacts on their self confidence, self esteem and mental well being.
What can I do if I am being bullied?
Try and speak to a manager you trust or HR in confidence first. If that is not helpful, then the first formal step is to raise a grievance addressing your concerns. The ACAS Code of Practice sets out the minimum grievance procedures that an employer should follow. The grievance should be handled by someone of the appropriate authority, but also by someone who is not party to the bullying complained of. Grievances were introduced to try and resolve workplace disputes prior to Employment Tribunal proceedings. Whether they have succeeded is a different topic entirely but it is the starting point in getting your concern heard. If your grievance is upheld then it may result in the ‘bully’ being disciplined or trained or workplace mediation could be arranged to get the working relationship back on track.
What are my legal rights?
There is no stand alone legal claim for bullying in England & Wales. If you have resigned because of bullying or have been dismissed unfairly (and you have two years service) then you may have a claim for unfair dismissal or constructive unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal. Irrespective of whether you have been dismissed, if you believe that the bullying is because of a ‘protected characteristic’ which you possess (see below) then you may have a claim for discrimination. The protected characteristics are:-
- your race
- your religion
- your sex
- your sexual orientation
- your disability
- your age
- our pregnancy/maternity.
A civil and criminal claim could also be pursued in more serious cases under the Protection of Harassment Act. For a potential civil case there must more at least two incidents of harassment and harassment is defined as being behaviour that causes distress or alarm.
Contact us – your employment solicitors
Dealing with bullying in the workplace whether you are an employer or employee is worrying. At Ashby Cohen we have given advice and pursued claims for employees and advised employers on how best to handle these situations. For more information get in touch for a free consultation on 020 7408 1338 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
 prepared by Ditch the Label worked in partnership with schools and colleges across the UK