Kate Redshaw outlines how HR professionals can best tackle bullying at work, and the benefits of doing so

Although many companies profess to understand and embrace the importance of employee wellbeing, staff engagement and work-life balance, workplace bullying is still prevalent across the UK. Costing businesses up to £18bn per year, statistics from Acas reveal that bullying is an issue that most employers will have to tackle at some point.

What is ‘bullying’?

Given that one person's bullying is another person's ‘robust performance management’, interestingly and, perhaps, surprisingly, there is no legal definition of the term. The nearest we have is a definition from Acas in its guide for managers and employers, Bullying and harassment at work, which defines bullying as: “Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour; an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

Although most people will recognise extreme cases of bullying, such as shouting or swearing at someone, or threatening behaviour, less obvious behaviours might also constitute bullying, for example:

  • Inappropriately withholding information

  • Unfair allocation of work

  • Deliberate over-monitoring

  • Spreading malicious rumours

  • Making unreasonable demands

It is also important to remember that bullying does not necessarily take place face to face, but may be via social media, messaging, email or written communications, for example.

Consequences of bullying

We know from the statistics that bullying can create serious problems for employers – sickness absence is a common consequence and can represent a huge cost to businesses. However, bullying can also have a knock-on effect in other ways; for example, poor morale, loss of respect for managers and HR, lost productivity and resignations. Where the bullying is endemic this can also impact on an organisation's brand and reputation as an employer.

There is also, of course, the risk of legal consequences. Although it is not possible to make a direct complaint to the courts on the grounds of bullying, there are several possible legal claims an employee may be able to bring depending on the circumstances. These include constructive unfair dismissal claims, whistleblowing, personal injury claims/claims of negligence (in extreme cases), health and safety complaints, harassment and discrimination claims (depending on the nature of the bullying) and claims under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

What can employers do to prevent bullying?

Responsible employers will want to do what they can to prevent bullying at work – not just from a hard cost perspective, but from a reputational stance too; once a culture becomes embedded in an organisation, it is a hard cloak to shed both internally and in the outside world. Steps to take include:

  • Leading by example. This is the most important step any organisation can take, with the senior leadership team setting the standards and culture by which the rest of the workforce lives. A strong top team that leads by example is every bit as important as a good HR policy.

  • Having a formal anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy in place and communicating this across the workplace. It is important that employees understand the appropriate procedures in place, the expected standards of behaviour while at work and the consequences of failing to observe them.

  • Training managers to identify the signs of bullying and on their responsibilities to combat it.

  • Encouraging managers to nip examples of questionable behaviour in the bud before they escalate into something more serious.

  • Maintaining fair procedures for dealing promptly and fairly with complaints of bullying from employees.

Kate Redshaw is a senior associate and employment law specialist at Burges Salmon