Gues Blog by Ed Stacey, Head of legal Services and Employment Law at PwC
With recent research suggesting workplace bullying is a significant problem for UK employers, this article looks at the policies and practices employers should adopt to tackle this issue and what the consequences are for failing to do so.
One of the first ways by which employers can tackle the problem of bullying is to ensure that there are adequate opportunities for individual employees to report their concerns. Employers should be encouraged to have a confidential route for doing so, possibly by way of a confidential helpline where employees can report allegations of bullying. This can also act as a counselling service to employees to support them where they have particular vulnerabilities or concerns.
Once issues are reported, employers need to be seen to have taken the allegations seriously. Over the years, I’ve dealt with a large number of tribunal claims that probably could have been avoided had initial allegations of bullying by an employee been investigated more carefully at an early stage. In many instances, the person making the allegations will be classed as a ‘whistle-blower’ which gives them additional legal protections and it is important that they are treated no less favourably for raising their concerns.
Fostering an environment in which bad behaviour and bullying can be raised is also crucial. Whilst confidential telephone lines can play an important role, HR teams will play an equally important role. They need to be seen as independent and supportive such that employees will actively raise concerns with them. HR teams may also be the only people who are privy to ‘repeat offenders’ about whom there have been persistent allegations and they will need to be mindful of this additional responsibility.
Organisations should also have a bullying and harassment policy that sets out the behaviours that the employer expects from its people, how to report instances of bullying and how such allegations will be dealt with. An increasing number of employers also use training across all of their people to help build a culture free from bullying, this may include more detailed training in parts of the business where such behaviour has become more common place. Finally, and importantly, the tone from management is crucial. Employees need to understand that there is a zero tolerance culture to bullying and that allegations will be taken seriously.
So that is how good employers can help tackle the problem of workplace bullying, but what are the consequences if they fail to do so? Essentially, the failure to tackle bullying puts the employer at risk from a legal, economic and reputational perspective. The legal risks will include an increased volume of employee grievances and employment tribunal claims that they may find difficult to defend. These will cause a potentially significant financial cost to the business including legal costs, the costs of any tribunal awards and the time cost for the business in handling the grievances and claims.
Where an employer fails to deal with a bully, this can have serious effects on the well-being of the victim potentially leading to poor performance, sickness absence and at worst, serious long-term mental and/or physical health issues. This can also lead to the risk of legal claims for personal injury.
There is also an underlying economic risk from a failure to manage bullying where the workplace culture is damaged leading to reduced profitability. The retention and attraction of talent can also be impacted, particularly where there is a limited pool of talent in the wider market. The costs of losing people, recruiting and training new staff can also be significant.
Whilst employers may not want to become too militant in pursuing the mildest one off remark for fear of creating a sterile culture, they need to be mindful of where the boundaries fall and the risks should they get this wrong.