Workplace bullying has returned to the forefront of public debate. But has anything really changed, and if so, what? Daniel Parker looks at bullying in the modern world of work and the ways in which employers might respond.
Recent developments at a number of significant organisations have thrown workplace bullying into sharp relief. Of late, high-profile allegations have been made against executives of the World Anti-Doping Agency. Investigations have also uncovered reports of widespread bullying at Britain’s leading universities. Likewise, and perhaps most prominently, Dame Laura Cox’s report into the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff has confirmed that bullying extends into the upper echelons of political life.
While the focus must, of course, be on the impact that workplace bullying has on the target – and this alone should motivate action – there are undoubtedly wider consequences. Research published in October 2018 estimates that workplace bullying in the NHS costs the public at least £2bn per year. ACAS details the typical consequences in its guidance about the ‘hidden cost of workplace exclusion’: poor attendance, high staff turnover and low morale.
Sadly, it appears that in many workplaces, bullying still exists in the traditional mould; in an extreme example, one academic compared his manager to Henry VIII. However, not all workplace bullying is the same and modern accounts have helped to stress less obvious, but nonetheless damaging, behaviour. The Commons report, for example, is a reminder that while some workplace bullying is easily identified, other examples are more subtle, and may start with smaller attempts to undermine which accumulate over time.
Isolation is a key theme in discussions about workplace bullying of late. Employers should, by now, be aware of how isolation can be a consequence of discrimination on the grounds of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010. However, less obvious causes of isolation need to be guarded against equally; for example, research has found that a significant proportion of part-time workers feel left out at work and subjected to negative attitudes. This is especially concerning given the contemporary emphasis on flexible working. Part-time workers benefit from their own protections against discriminatory treatment that should not be forgotten.
Despite being more ‘connected’ than ever, the ways in which modern workplaces communicate are likely to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, isolation. While email can have a disinhibiting effect, it is at least the employer’s system. Private messaging on Whats App allows groups to form, making decisions as to who to include and exclude feel tangible and deliberate.
Employers cannot themselves adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude to private messaging. There are difficult arguments that may yet be made in the Employment Tribunal about whether employees’ wrongful uses of those networks will be sufficiently connected to their roles to make their employers liable. For now, it is crucial to have a robust social media policy and for managers to understand how their teams communicate, in order to minimise the opportunity for bullying and, if necessary, offer the best possible chance of successfully claiming a ‘reasonable employer’ defence to harassment claims.
Another challenge is that the targets themselves may not raise the matter, or not until it has progressed to a level that they can no longer bear. Without being addressed, bullying can lead to reduced productivity, absences and, at its most serious, harm to the target’s health. This places a premium on fostering a culture where there is no fear of reprisals for raising unwanted conduct. Helpful preventative steps can be taken at each end of the employment ‘cycle’. At the outset, recruitment processes should pay attention to the quality of candidates’ working relationships; at conclusion, patterns should be identified in exit interviews and taken seriously.
When allegations do arise, it is imperative that they are treated sensitively but decisively. Where allegations are not taken seriously, it can evidently undermine the trust and confidence between employer and employee, leading to potential constructive unfair dismissal claims. Perhaps less obviously, where investigations are not taken seriously, this can itself – depending on the reason for that neglect – give good grounds for a discrimination claim.
While workplace bullying is a longstanding problem, the nature of the challenge continues to change. So should the nature of the response. Current coverage is a lesson to all to be mindful of more subtle, but equally damaging, behaviour that can be found in the modern workplace, in order to avoid becoming the next newsworthy example.