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Workplace bullying – Employers beware!

06 May 2010

Karen ColeKaren Cole looks at work place bullying and how employers can take steps to prevent it occurring in their workplace.

Recent allegations of bullying within 10 Downing Street have raised the profile of a subject which receives relatively little coverage outside of the employment tribunal. This is in spite of indications that incidences of intimidatory behaviour are widespread in the workplace.

Not only is workplace bullying unpleasant and de-motivating, it has also been claimed to cost British businesses £14billion annually. Somewhat surprisingly, there is no specific law relating to workplace bullying. However, different forms of offensive behaviour may breach the law. For example, claims relating to homophobic bullying and harassment can be brought under the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003. Other forms of victimisation and harassment may be in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 or the Race Relations Act 1976. Where an employee brings a claim under discrimination law, there is no statutory cap on the amount a tribunal can award in compensation.

In addition to the above, there are remedies available to employees under the general law. Bullying constitutes a form of harassment and an employer who fails to prevent bullying can, even without being negligent, be liable to pay damages under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for harassment by one employee of another in the course of his or her work.

Employers who are themselves guilty of bullying staff or those who fail to take action to prevent an employee being bullied in the workplace, could therefore be ordered to pay substantial compensation or a fine. The worst case scenario being a prison sentence.

In a recent case, a bank employee earning £45,000 per annum suffered a breakdown after she was subjected to a long and sustained campaign of bullying. She was awarded £828,000 in damages.

All too often, victims of bullying are too frightened to take action to protect themselves. It is therefore essential that employers take seriously their responsibility for preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace. Positive action must be taken to eliminate employee behaviour of a kind that could cause distress and anxiety to others. It is important that all workers understand that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Policies should therefore state clearly that any incident of bullying will be taken seriously and the perpetrator dealt with severely.

The Government has published guidance for employers on the Direct Gov Website at www.direct.gov.uk. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) also provide some useful information, www.acas.org.uk.