Bullying at Work

At present, there is no legislation in the UK specifically to protect those who suffer bullying at work. Victims of bullying need to look to other legislation to gain protection or redress under the law. This may be employment law, health and safety law or general law, depending on the circumstances of the individual case.

A recent TUC survey revealed that in three quarters of bullying incidents the perpetrator had been a manager or supervisor. A survey carried out by the trade union UNISON and the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) reported that almost half of middle managers have themselves been a victim of bullying at some point in their working lives. It is estimated that bullying at work is responsible for the loss of 18 million working days each year, at a cost to the UK economy of £1.3 billion.

Attempts were made in 1996 and 2001 to introduce a private members’ ‘Dignity at Work’ Bill, to deal specifically with bullying, but these failed. The Government anticipated that the introduction of statutory grievance procedures in October 2004 would give employees the means to raise any problems with bullying with their employer and to have them dealt with.

However, amidst growing concern over the problem, the trade union Amicus has launched a major project to eradicate bullying at work. The project is backed by the Department of Trade and Industry and supported by employers such as British Airways, Legal and General, the Royal Mail, Ford and BT, as well as ACAS and the Andrea Adams Trust, a charity dedicated to tackling workplace bullying.

The project will bring together employee representatives and employers to promote policies to suit individual workplaces. Further information can be found on the project’s website.

In March 2005, the Court of Appeal unanimously held that under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 employers can be vicariously liable to pay the victim damages if an act of harassment is committed by an employee in the course of his or her employment, provided a sufficiently clear link can be established between the work and the harassment. Under the Act, it is not necessary for the victim of harassment to prove that they have suffered a physical or psychiatric injury. Unlike personal injury claims, the victim only has to demonstrate that he or she has suffered anxiety and distress to be entitled to damages. As a result of this decision, the use of such claims is likely to increase and claims for damages on account of bullying and harassment, where there is no apparent element of sex or race discrimination, may now be brought against employers in the common law courts.

Victims of bullying are often too frightened to take action to protect themselves. Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. Positive action must be taken to eliminate employee behaviour of a kind that could cause distress and anxiety to others in the workplace. It is important that all workers understand that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Policies should state clearly that any instance of bullying will be taken seriously and the perpetrator dealt with severely. Failure to act could result in a costly settlement for compensation or damages, a fine or even a custodial sentence.

ACAS has recently added a new e-learning course, dealing with understanding and preventing bullying in the workplace, to its website. This is free once you have registered to use the e-learning resources. See http://www.acas.org.uk/elearning/.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.