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Bullying at Work: Sticks and Stones

TV Show shines the light on the problem of workplace bullying

While most of us were looking forward to the Christmas party, December 2019 saw the launch of controversial ITV show Sticks and Stones, which left viewers feeling uncomfortable, anxious and paranoid as they watched the TV series centred around workplace bullying unfold.

Although we can assume there is some creative licence to make it a prime-time show, the series raises serious points about how workplace bullying occurs and its consequences.

The three-part series centred around the life of businessman Thomas Benson, who ruins a crucial team pitch before freezing and then fainting in the company boardroom. Reliant on bonuses and winning pitches, Benson often finds himself leading the team when trying to win new business. But as he does so, he begins to feel undermined, under attack and out of control. Has he lost his confidence and just feeling paranoid or is his own team now out to get him?

Not only is Thomas’ predicament familiar but what happens next proves just as familiar, as he becomes a victim of workplace bullying.

The drama was so good you start to wonder, is this happening? Or is it in Thomas’ head? – and that’s exactly what those who have suffered bullying feel.

What is bullying?

Bullying is surprisingly hard to define, and there remains no specific legal definition.

When someone alleges that they have been bullied therefore, the scope of the types of behaviour that this might cover is vast. This can make the idea of reporting it so intimidating for many because they will often question whether their complaint sounds silly or insignificant.

Although there is no statutory/legal definition, on their website, ACAS define bullying as:

behaviour from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable, including feeling:

  • frightened (‘intimidated’)
  • less respected or put down (‘degraded’)
  • you’re made fun of and it makes you feel uncomfortable (‘humiliated’)
  • upset (insulted or ‘offended’)…”

What behaviour and conduct that may actually be caught by this is almost impossible to limit but examples of bullying in the workplace could include:

  • someone has spread a false rumour about you
  • when someone keeps putting you down in meetings
  • your boss does not let you go on training courses, but they allow everyone else to
  • your boss keeps giving you heavier workloads than everyone else
  • your team never lets you join social events
  • colleagues giving you the cold shoulder

The difficulty facing employers and colleagues is that bullying is often invisible. It will not always be in the office, but could be on social media, on the phone or at social events; or it might be a regular pattern of minor behaviour or a one-off incident. This makes it difficult for it to be identified or noticed by others.

Another issue facing victims of bullying is the massive grey area between legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance or behaviour, or reasonable instructions given to workers in the course of their employment, which should not amount to bullying on their own; and when someone is actually being bullied.

There are no easy answers, as Thomas Benson found out, as to when this line is crossed and so it will always have to be assessed on a case by case basis.

Just as a reminder, bullying behaviour may also amount to harassment if such unwanted behaviour is about any of the protected characteristics such as age; disability; race or religion or belief. It is perhaps at this point that in terms of statutory protection, the rights for people suffering improves and strengthens.

Shouldn’t you just take it as banter?

Well, no. Without doubt, if you are being bullied, it feels absolutely horrific. Those suffering get no respite when they leave work and may spend all the time from when they leave to when they have to go back, thinking about what happened, analysing the previous day and fearing the day to come.

Remember, in workplace bullying, colleagues and employers will rarely see someone at 2am when they are crying but will instead only see their work face. As a result, it is much easier for others to call it banter.

The anxiety, fear and worry caused by such behaviour can also lead to more serious mental health issues.

For example, the show highlighted a major social problem, which is the continued harmful effects of toxic masculinity and the reluctance men particularly, continue to have to admit to mental health difficulties.

The lead character had such a strong view on the kind of man he should be, the kind of businessman, father and husband he should be. There are more and more examples of men who end up isolated within the idea of who they should be and how they should act. Unfortunately, it remains true that seeking help is often seen as displaying weakness and vulnerability and so that person inevitably ends up suffering internally until something critical and serious happens.

Ones person’s banter can and will be another’s bullying and harassment and so it is heartening to feel that people, colleagues and businesses are now talking about men’s mental health more openly and that there isn’t now that idea of having to “man up”.

Managing staff

Apart from real life mental health issues, bullying and harassment of course give rise to a number of legal issues:

  • An employer may be liable under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) if it fails to protect its employees and other workers from harassment in the course of their employment.
  • Employers have a number of implied duties in the employment contract, including a duty to provide a safe and suitable working environment, a duty not to destroy mutual trust and confidence, and a duty to provide redress of grievances.
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 requires employers to provide a safe place and system of work.

If the person who harasses someone else is your employee, equality law says that you will be held legally responsible unless you can show that you took all reasonable steps to prevent them harassing someone.

It does not matter if the employer did not know about, or approve of, the discriminatory acts of your employees or agents.

So, it is important you take all reasonable steps to make sure your workers know that harassment will not be tolerated, both because of the impact it has on the person who is harassed, but also because of the impact it could have on your organisation. Some tips to avoid allegations of bullying, harassment and how to manage complaints are set out below.

Good practice tips: What might ‘all reasonable steps ’to prevent harassment mean?

Equality law does not specify exactly what ‘reasonable steps’ are, but these steps are likely to help:

  • Put in place an anti-bullying & harassment policy (sometimes this will be included in a wider equality policy).
  • Involve staff in the policy-making process, including agreeing the policy with a trade union and/or other worker representatives if appropriate.
  • Make sure your workers are aware of the policy’s existence and of their responsibilities to make it work, for example, by providing them with training (this is something that we can help with).
  • Make sure that any visitors, clients, suppliers or customers who come into contact with your workers or job applicants are also aware of the policy and behave in line with it, for example, using signs in your reception area.
  • Use your policy to explain the steps you are taking to prevent bulling or harassment.

What a harassment policy should do:

  • Describe the scope of bullying and harassment, and clearly state that any such treatment of workers or job applicants will not be tolerated.
  • Make it clear that complaints will be treated as a disciplinary offence.
  • Clearly explain how a worker can make a complaint, informally and formally.
  • Make it clear that complaints will be dealt with within a reasonable time, treated seriously and confidentially, and that someone complaining will be protected from victimisation.
  • Describe what support is available to a worker if they think they are being bullied, for example, counselling or a worker assistance programme.
  • Describe any training/other resources available for workers to help them spot and stop bullying or harassment.
  • Describe how your policy will be implemented, reviewed and monitored.
  • Build in a review process; this is particularly important if someone has complained of bullying or harassment, as you will need to make sure that your policy was effective in dealing with the incident.

Good practice tips for dealing with complaints of bullying & harassment

  • Handle a complaint of bullying harassment with sensitivity and with respect for everyone’s rights.
  • Do not dismiss what is said to have happened as the person complaining being ‘oversensitive’ without investigating exactly what has gone on and assessing whether it comes within scope of bullying or the equality law definition of harassment.
  • Try not to require someone complaining of bullying or harassment to repeatedly recount the events complained of where this is unnecessary, as this may be difficult and upsetting for them.
  • If the worker who says they have been bullied or harassed wants to make an anonymous complaint (so that the person they are complaining about will not know who has complained) then:
  • Try to maintain their confidentiality while you find out what has happened and during any formal disciplinary proceedings you decide are necessary.
  • Remember though that the person who is said to have harassed the worker is entitled to know the details of what they are said to have done so they can defend themselves.
  • Try to make sure that workers not involved do not find out about what has happened.

Don’t forget getting advice from a Solicitor does not have to be complicated or costly!

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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