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When bullying goes on behind the screen

View profile for Leanne Day
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In the run-up to this year’s Anti-Bullying Week, which runs from 16th to 20th November 2020, employers are being encouraged to look at how new styles of working may be affecting employees.

Employers are being encouraged to focus on how they manage and respond to bullying and harassment issues, including cyberbullying, in the new virtual working landscape.

Working away from the office, staff may be missing working alongside their colleagues and the chance to have face-to-face meetings, according to a YouGov poll.  However, they are not missing the fear of dealing with colleagues or managers who subject them to bullying and harassment.

For many who are affected, working from home will not have stopped the bullying, and may even have exacerbated it, with colleagues less likely to see what is happening and a more informal structure.  The new ways of working may also see more workers become victims of bullying where the pressures of working online and interacting through virtual spaces results in micro-aggression and cyber-bullying, with workers more likely to feel isolated and actions of others more easily misinterpreted.

Figures from the TUC indicate that around a third of people are bullied at work, with women more likely to be the subject.   Around three-quarters of cases involve bullying by a manager, making specialist training and development an important route to tackle the issue.

This is echoed in further research, undertaken recently by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which found that of those workers who had been bullied or harassed at work, 40% say their manager was responsible.

There is no legal definition for bullying, but it is described by the conciliation service Acas as 'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

And while bullying itself is not against the law, the impact of such behaviour may be.   

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination and harassment that is related to a protected characteristic.  These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation; also, pregnancy and maternity where the protection against harassment is subject to slightly different rules.

Bullying may become harassment when a worker is subject to unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.  Examples include making offensive sexual comments, or abusing someone for their race, religion or sexual orientation. 

As well as the more obvious example of being humiliated in front of colleagues through verbal abuse, it could include blocking promotion, malicious rumours, or sharing criticism where others do not need to know.

In today’s working-from-home environment, there may be cyber-bullying, such as repeated check-ins and chasers from managers, which may be more likely to arise when there is distrust that staff are maximising output in an independent working situation, or where poor working relationships are subjected to additional strain and lack of communication away from the office.

And while employers may question whether they are liable for the actions of such employees, perhaps because it happened away from the formal workplace or out of office hours, this will be down to whether the conduct has resulted ‘in the course of their employment’.

All employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and can be liable for discrimination or harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.  Such claims can be very costly, from both a financial and reputational perspective.

And it’s not just the implications of the claim itself.  More than one in three people who report being bullied at work will leave their job because of it, leading to recruitment and development costs to replace these lost skills.  And while persistent harassment may lead to poor work performance and attendance, and ultimately dismissal, the root cause, such as racism or homophobia, may never be acknowledged. 

“The current situation is a real stress-test for the culture of the business and the strength of your employment policies.  Whatever the challenge, everyone is entitled to work in a safe environment, free from bullying and harassment,” explained Grant Shackleston, employment expert with Chattertons Solicitors.   

“As well as being bad for morale and productivity, bullying is bad for attraction and retention. So it certainly pays to review carefully how you are operating, ask and listen to staff, and make sure to involve all managers in understanding where the boundaries will be, and how they can help to safeguard the welfare of their team.

“While one person may think they are making a joke, another may find it offensive or humiliating, which is why it is so important to spell out behaviour expected and make sure everyone knows what is or isn’t acceptable.”

In the CIPD-commissioned research, a third of employers said one of the biggest barriers to effective conflict management was that managers did not demonstrate the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviours, highlighting the importance of training and ensuring all levels of management know what is expected of them.

The research also showed that many who had suffered bullying at work could not face the process of reporting an incident.  Of those who said they had been bullied, 63% of women and 79% of men said they did not report it. 

However, lack of reporting does not mean they may not be able to take their case to an Employment Tribunal.   There is no length of service requirement for an Equality Act claim and claims can be brought by job applicants, workers or employees, and by ex-employees or workers.  And since the abolition of fees to bring a claim, Ministry of Justice reporting shows the number of actions has risen by almost 20% overall. 

In addition to arguing that claims under the Equality Act related to a protected characteristic, employees may have a case under the Protection for Harassment Act 1997.  This would cover a course of conduct which resulted in oppressive behaviour on at least two occasions.  Under this Act, an employer may be vicariously liable for acts where they are committed by employees in the course of their employment.

When bullying leads someone to resign from their job, they may have a case for breach of contract or constructive dismissal, or if it has an impact on their mental wellbeing, when employers have a duty to protect safety and welfare while at work.  

“Evidence shows that employees often do not report incidents because of fears over how it may be handled, or whether it may weigh against them in their future career development, particularly where a manager is involved in the bullying” added Grant.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission recommend that every business has a written policy, setting out how harassment at work is unlawful and making sure all staff understand that such behaviour will not be tolerated and may be treated as a disciplinary offence.  Giving specific examples of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour in different situations is useful in helping people understand boundaries, together with guidance to staff on how to respond and deal with such behaviour. 

He added: “Most importantly, there must be a clear process for what to do if anyone feels they have been subject to any form of harassment, including a safe environment for reporting and handling any complaints.  

“However large or small the company, top of the agenda should be a focus on the best possible attitude towards equality and diversity in the workplace.  Management should lead the way in demonstrating that everyone, from the top down, has zero tolerance towards all forms of inappropriate or intimidating behaviour.”

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