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Leading a nation of bullies?


In a new book Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been accused of workplace bullying. It is alleged that he has shoved, shouted and sworn at his colleagues. Mr Brown denies the allegations but accepts he can get angry and is determined and strong-willed.

Workplace bullying is an issue high on the agenda for all HR and risk professionals. ACAS describes 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"

The allegations against Mr Brown have caused a media and political storm, yet media role models like Gordon Ramsay and Alan Sugar have blurred the edges between what is an acceptable, albeit ebullient, managerial style and what is a bullying boss.

As workplaces have evolved over the years, management styles have adapted to the environment. Kitchens are noisy, hot and dangerous and there is a perceived need to shout, so say the justifications for Mr Ramsay's behaviour. Military training has historically involved robust harsh words from the drill sergeant. Can it be right that certain workplaces engender an expectation of robust words - kitchens, barrack rooms, trading rooms, newspaper and news rooms where tempers flare and deadlines are tight?

As with any form of harassment, the perception of the victim is key - if they view the actions or comments as demeaning or unacceptable then there is a serious risk that the behaviour will be viewed as bullying, regardless of the environment. Bullying can be insidious rather than overt, and does not necessarily involve shouting or physical contact.

Whilst there is not a legal claim per se for bullying, it can form the basis of a complaint under the legislation covering discrimination and harassment, and could also be the basis for an unfair dismissal claim. A claim for breach of contract is also likely. The Courts have held employers liable for bullying or harassment, either directly or vicariously, if the acts are performed by employees in the course of employment.

The HSE recognise bullying is a form of organisational violence and as a potential source of work-related stress, and bullying appears within factor 3 of the HSE Management Standards, stress factors list. Recent statistics confirm that work-related stress is widespread in the UK working population and is not confined to particular sectors or high risk jobs or industries. It is known to be linked with high levels of sickness absence, staff turnover and other indicators of organisational underperformance.

HR and Health and Safety Managers therefore have an important role in assisting employers to proactively address work-related stress and bullying. Reasonable steps in relation to harassment will usually include, as a minimum :

  • Carrying out a stress audit;
  • Having and implementing an equal opportunities policy and an anti-harassment and bullying policy;
  • Making all employees aware of the policy and its implications;
  • Regularly training managers and supervisors in equal opportunities and harassment issues;
  • Taking steps to deal effectively with complaints, including taking appropriate disciplinary action ; and
  • Providing support through the employee assistance programme or occupational health service and/or providing independent confidential counselling.

The Court of Appeal in a recent decision (Veakins v Kier Islington Ltd [2010] IRLR 132) held that it should not be assumed that stress at work will always give rise to a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Regular readers will know that the choice of claim often relates to the limitation periods involved. For the pure employment-type claims, the period is short, whilst the period for claims under the harassment legislation is considerably longer. The counterbalance to the long limitation period for employers is the fact that claims are often more difficult to advance. In this case, the guidance given by the Court of Appeal was that the conduct must be "oppressive and unacceptable" and of an order that would sustain criminal liability in order for an employee to bring a successful workplace claim.

Regardless of the basis for the claim, the risks to an employer of turning a blind eye to bullying at work should not be underestimated.

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