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How employers should deal with allegations of bullying

Bullying is not something confined solely to schoolyards. It continues into our adult lives and therefore, our workplaces. This has been of particular note recently due to the report into Priti Patel’s actions at the Home Office in which it was found that she had bullied staff, even if such bullying was unintentional.

Bullying is a very serious issue. Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace and a failure to deal with it properly can demotivate staff significantly, causing them a great deal of unnecessary stress and anxiety, and creating a demoralised workplace. In extreme circumstances, bullying and harassment can lead to employment tribunal claims against employers which are not only costly, but can take up a lot of management time. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that any form of bullying or harassment is dealt with at an early stage and proper procedures are in place to ensure that employers and employees are aware of their responsibilities to their staff and colleagues.

There is no enshrined definition in law for bullying, but it is generally accepted that bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. This can go hand in hand with the legal definition of harassment, which is unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic (such as sex or race) which has the purpose or effect of violating someone else’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

The starting point for any employer is to have a comprehensive policy to deal with bullying and harassment. This will set out what is expected of employees and create the guidelines for dealing with allegations of bullying or harassment and the consequences for employees for undertaking such actions. In particular, a good policy may provide examples of bullying and remind employees of the standards which must be kept. In the event that bullying takes place, employers should ensure that they refer to the policy to deal with the matter.

If someone is being bullied, they should try to deal with this informally at first. The bully may not know that they are creating a hostile atmosphere, and so unwanted conduct can be dealt with in this manner first. If the individual being bullied feels unable to face the bully head on, then they can speak confidentially with their line manager or HR. In many cases, the perceived bullying may be from the line manager and employers should ensure that a clear alternative procedure is set out in the policy where this may be the case. If the informal approach does not give the desired outcome then the matter can be dealt with formally. Dependant on policies in place, this may be a specific complaint under the bullying and harassment policy or a grievance.

When the formal policy is invoked, an independent investigator should look into the situation and investigate the allegations of bullying seriously, taking relevant evidence into account, such as witness statements or documents where relevant (i.e. emails between the individuals). Investigation meetings are not disciplinary sanctions, and these should invite relevant parties to discuss the matter openly. Once sufficient investigation has taken place, the investigator should consider whether the complaint is well-founded. If they believe that bullying has taken place, then the ‘bully’ may be invited to a disciplinary hearing, and the disciplinary policy should be followed. The investigator should not suggest what sanctions the ‘bully’ should face. In the event that an individual is not satisfied with the outcome of their complaint, they may be given the opportunity to appeal to a more senior manager.

Sufficient support should be offered to the employee and any witnesses to ensure that they feel safe and protected in the workplace. In particular, employers should be wary of ‘victimisation’. This is where an employee is subject to a detriment for a ‘protected act’ which, in this instance, is accusing another employee of bullying.

At all stages of the process, care should be taken to ensure that the matter is kept confidential, to protect both parties in the situation.

What should you be doing now?

If you don’t have one already, arrange to have a policy on bullying and harassment. BPE can assist in drafting this, and other policies, for you. If someone alleges that bullying has taken place, it should be dealt with effectively and confidentially, with support put in place for the bullied employee. Where bullying is proven to have happened, this is a disciplinary matter. Bear in mind that seeing the ‘bully’ get off scot-free, as has happened to a certain Home Office individual, will not set a good precedent and will only serve to undermine the trust employees have in their employer. Employers should be particularly aware of bullying related to protected characteristics, because this poses a serious risk of discrimination and harassment claims, which could put a serious dent in the company coffers.

Recommended Reading

ACAS has a useful link for dealing with bullying at work here.


These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.

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