As has recently been reported in the press, Gordon Brown has been accused of bullying at No 10. An anti-bullying helpline has revealed that it has received several complaints from people working with the Prime Minister, including allegations of Mr Brown swearing at staff, grabbing them by their lapels and shouting at them.

The Cabinet Office has strongly denied these allegations much to the annoyance of the National Bullying Helpline's CEO, Christine Pratt. Ms Pratt has stated that: "Outright denial is just non-credible in today's age" and that such a response sends out the wrong message to other bosses. She believes that the Cabinet Office should investigate the complaints and follow a due process.

The irony is that Ms Pratt has been accused herself of bullying, most recently by TV presenter Sarah Cawood who was a patron of the National Bullying Helpline. Ms Cawood explained that she was reduced to tears after being accused by Christine Pratt of failing the charity. Ms Cawood, Gary Cooper and Ann Widdecombe have all resigned from the charity following Ms Pratt's decision to go public with the calls from the No 10 employees. The helpline is supposed to be confidential and the decision to go to the press with this story is a clear breach of the confidentiality principles associated with such a helpline.

The Legals

The big question is what is bullying and harrassment?

Harrassment

Harassment is prohibited under the major employment legislation on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religious belief, gender reassignment and age. A working definition based on the definition in the legislation could be:

'Unwanted conduct which (a) has the purpose of violating a person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person or (b) which is reasonably considered by that person to have the effect of violating their dignity or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person, even if that effect was not intended by the other person.'

Bullying

There is no legal definition of conduct that amounts to bullying. However, a working definition could be:

'Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power which is meant to undermine, humiliate or injure the person on the receiving end.'

Certain conduct will almost certainly constitute bullying or harassment, such as racial abuse or the making of unwanted sexual advances. However, and more commonly, there will be so-called 'borderline' behaviour, such as an aggressive management style, which can be capable of constituting bullying or harassment.

Drawing the line between assertive management and bullying

Dealing with performance or conduct issues in an appropriate and consistent way is not bullying. The fact that someone is upset by issues being raised does not necessarily mean there has been bullying. When managing employees the following should be taken into account:

  • Criticism should be constructive and should indicate the faults and the improvements required.
  • Legitimate criticism can become bullying if it is made in a way intended to undermine or humiliate, rather than to improve performance, or if inappropriate language is used.
  • The level of rebuke must be proportionate to the alleged failing on the part of the employee.
  • Criticise the work or behaviour rather than the person.
  • The disciplinary procedure should be invoked where informal coaching and counselling has failed to deal with performance and conduct issues.

The consequences

There are a number of legal and non-legal consequences of bullying and harassment in the workplace. Employers need to consider poor staff morale, poor performance, increased absence levels and staff turnover, bad publicity and a poor reputation which are all consequences of a hostile working environment. Legally, employers should also be aware of possible discrimination claims (no limit on compensation), constructive unfair dismissal claims, negligence for foreseeable personal injury and criminal prosecution under the Protection from Harassment Act.

The solution

The key to dealing with bullying and harassment at work is preventative action; however it is also important to deal with any cases which do arise properly. The following is worth considering:

  • Implement dignity at work and equal opportunity policies. Ensure there is a high level of support from management.
  • Ensure grievance and disciplinary policies are strictly adhered to when cases do arise.  
  • Designate people to provide advice to people who feel they are being bullied or harassed and to managers dealing with situations.
  • Ensure managers are properly trained on how to deal with bullying and harassment. Appropriate training, in addition to suitable policies, is essential, as a minimum, for an employer to have a potential 'reasonable steps' defence to a claim about discriminatory harassment by one employee against another.
  • Consider offering a counselling service where appropriate.
  • Acquiring a reputation for not tolerating bullying or harassment at work. A zero tolerance approach to bullying leads to a happier workforce and good publicity.

Conclusion

In the recent case of Veakins v Kier Islington Limited the Court of Appeal has provided some useful guidance for employers on what sort of conduct would be required for an employee to bring a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. In this case, Maurice Kay LJ found that the account of victimisation, demoralisation and the reduction of a usually robust woman to a state of clinical depression was not simply 'unattractive' and 'unreasonable' conduct but was 'oppressive and 'unacceptable' and thus crossed the line into criminal liability. In this case, the employee was constantly singled out for unpleasant treatment, including telling her off in front of colleagues and asking the employee's colleagues questions about her private life. Although it is perhaps a rare occurrence for workplace harassment to fall within the remit of criminal liability, employers should be aware of this case.

There have been some high profile cases of bullying in the workplace taking place in the City. In Horkulak v Cantor Fitzgerald a senior managing director succeeded in a claim of constructive wrongful dismissal and was awarded damages of £912,000. The use of foul and abusive language was considered not to be acceptable and was found to have undermined the contract of employment. As evidenced by this case, the cost to employers can be huge financially and by way of reputation.

The recent press coverage of Mr Brown will no doubt have brought this issue to the forefront of many employers' minds and now is as good a time as any to get your house in order and to put a stop to bullying at work. A consistent and appropriate management style should be taken, treating employees in a firm but fair manner, will not amount to bullying and will reduce the risk of claims being brought.