Bullying in the workplace: How do we prevent it and what do we need to do if allegations are made?

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15 December, 2020

With the recent marking of anti-bullying week, also came the news that Priti Patel, Home Secretary, has been found to have breached the ministerial code due to bullying in the workplace, following an internal investigation. The news has not only caught the attention of the public but also shone a light on individual organisations and their approach to workplace bullying, particularly those who work in the public sector.

What happened?

Allegations against the Home Secretary emerged in March 2020 after the resignation of the former Home Office permanent secretary, over what he described as a "vicious and orchestrated campaign" against him for challenging the alleged mistreatment of other civil servants.

It is also alleged that a senior Home Office official collapsed after a meeting with the Home Secretary, who is understood to have asked for another senior official in the department to be moved from their job.

A Cabinet Office inquiry was launched in March 2020 and concluded in summer, with the outcome reaching the mainstream media in November 2020. In concluding the investigation, it has been advised that the Home Secretary breached the ministerial code by failing to treat civil servants with "consideration and respect" and it was felt that the Home Secretary's behaviour had met the civil service definition of bullying as "intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down."

Aside from this, the Home Secretary is also facing a pending Employment Tribunal claim from the former Home Office permanent secretary, who has now also brought a claim for constructive unfair dismissal.

What lessons can be learned from this?

Many social housing organisation have distinct policies and procedures in place for when allegations of bullying and harassment in the workplace are made. This is supported by many having a clear approach to equal opportunities, employee codes of conduct and matters of formal grievance, which should provide employees with a clear view of how they are entitled to be treated and what type of process they can expect when they are treated in a way that falls short of the standards expected. So, what is the response when an allegation is made and how do these processes need to be handled?

We suggest some of the following steps are taken when complaints of bullying and harassment arise:

  1. Ensuring that any and all complaints are taken seriously and handled in an appropriate manner, whether informal or formal.
  2. Allegations of bullying and harassment can be extremely difficult to broach and discuss, so there is a need to ensure that complaints are handled and investigated sensitively.
  3. Consulting with your organisations specific bullying and harassment policy and/or grievance policy to ensure you follow the processes your organisation has created.
  4. Ensure the right to appeal against any outcome reached as a result of these procedures.
  5. Making yourself aware of the organisation's stance on vexatious or malicious complaints to know how to deal with misconduct issues proportionately.

These are just some of the pointer's organisations may need to consider when dealing with complaints of bullying and harassment and employers are advised to take independent legal advice where you feel concerns of bullying and harassment are escalating and require intervention.

Despite bullying itself not being defined in employment law, harassment, is defined by the Equality Act 2010 as being "unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characterises and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating [the employee's] or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for [the employee]." Ultimately, this is a claim an employee can seek to bring in the Employment Tribunal, particularly where an employee has a protected characteristic. Generally, harassment claims can be brought alongside a claim for constructive unfair dismissal, where any employee resigns in response to the treatment they have received. Obviously, it will not be in the interests of many organisations to allow complaints to escalate to this stage, particularly as claims can be time consuming, utilise an extensive amount of resource and have the potential to be costly, particularly considering the potential for compensation to be awarded in successful claims and the potential to incur significant legal costs.

Public sector and social housing employers should also remain aware of their legal obligations to create a safe, fair environment for all employees to safeguarding against discriminatory cultures and practises developing amongst colleagues. To combat this, employers should be continuously aware of the need to provide regular equality and diversity training, discussing issues regarding inclusivity in the workplace and the need to treat other colleagues with respect.

By taking these measures, you are not only mitigating the chances of bullying and harassment arising in the workplace but are also helping to demonstrate the stance your organisation takes against treatment of this kind, which ultimately aids you when concerns escalate to the stage of formal complaints and/or claims.

For more information contact Laura Cieplak in our Housing & Regeneration department via email or phone on 01772 220188. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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