The legal definition of bullying
While employers have an implied duty to provide a safe working environment, the absence of a legal definition of bullying means that employers find it difficult to address or enforce the harm carried out by a perpetrator. It seems overdue that whilst discrimination and harassment are legal concepts, bullying is not.
Unlike discrimination and harassment, the concept of bullying has not been legally defined and therefore compensatory protection from bullying is limited for those victims of it in the workplace.
A bill has been proposed and is passing through parliament which is now seeking to set out a legal definition of bullying and to afford further protections, possibly allowing those subjected to bullying immediate legal protections and determining it could be an automatic unfair reason for dismissal.
Why is bullying at work a problem?
According to statistics 17 million days per year are lost through bullying in the workplace.
The TUC reports that bullying is the second biggest workplace issue. Some 29% of workers will experience workplace bullying at some point.
What is bullying at work?
Bullying is defined by ACAS as, ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened’.
Bullying comes in many different shapes and sizes and can be insidious or overt in nature. For example, it can be manifested by overbearing supervision or inappropriate levels of criticism.
Because of the varied and subjective nature of bullying behaviour it is going to be difficult to define bullying in law and the legal definition of bullying will need to strike a balance so that employers are still able to effectively manage problems in the workplace so that legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance or behaviour, or reasonable instructions given to workers in the course of their employment, will not amount to bullying on their own.
As people often many of us have been touched by or witnessed bullying in some form and the bill rightly states that we all as individuals have power to edify, elevate or alternatively denigrate and destroy others with our conduct. The Bill seeks to call to account those perpetrating bullying behaviours and offering protection to those a victim of it.
Bullying has a huge impact on individuals causing devastating mental health crises and can lead to physical illness in victims sometimes causing individuals to take their own lives.
Current legal protections for bullying
Accessing compensation is limited, with the main route open to those suffering workplace bullying is constructive dismissal. Which is only available in most cases to those who have been employed for 2 years or more.
This type of claim requires the employee to resign from their role and show that the employer irretrievably breached the terms of the contract between the parties.
As a consequence of a lack of legislation many workers leave their roles with no real recourse, allowing toxic workplaces to go on and in many respects flourish due to the lack of accountability and enforceability of unacceptable workplace behaviours.
The bill proposes to provide a legal definition that seeks to promote respect and positive behaviours at work whilst setting clear boundaries as to what is and is not acceptable within the workplace.
To effectively protect employees, legislation is required to change toxic cultures and give the tribunal power to remedy and give adequate compensation to those victims of such conduct.
Currently most employers are guided by in house policy documents and external advice when faced with issues of workplace bullying and quite often any grievance raised rubs directly against embedded workplace culture of historical behaviours. It is important to take any allegation of bullying seriously and understand the impact it has at the human level, as well as on the business.
When will changes happen?
Currently the bill is at the very early stages of parliament and so full details will be developed and become available in time. There is currently no set timetable for when this may become law. We will of course keep you updated and if you need any advice on bullying in your own workplace, please do not hesitate to contact us on 01983 897003.