In late November 2020, Sir Alex Allan the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests resigned from his position after Boris Johnson effectively rejected his finding that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel had behaved in a way that could be described as bullying and had “unintentionally” broken the Ministerial Code. Her alleged bullying behaviour included shouting, swearing, belittling people and making unreasonable demands.
By deciding to support Ms Patel, and instead blame the victims for failing to formally complain about the bullying, the Prime Minister has set a dangerous precedent, not only within government but across the country. For several years now it has been recognised that workplace bullying not only destroys careers, it often causes years of mental health issues and results in the loss of key talent for many employers.
It would seem logical that the increase in homeworking due to the Coronavirus pandemic would make it easier for victims of bullying to avoid the perpetrators. But sadly, this is not the case and in fact, homeworking can make bullying and harassment harder for management to detect and address.
What is workplace bullying?
There is no statutory definition of bullying in English law.
ACAS guidance for Managers and Employers on Bullying and Harassment at Work describes bullying as something that has happened that is “unwelcome, unwarranted and causes a detrimental effect”. It offers a wide-ranging definition of bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.
Employers will often have their own internal policies describing bullying. In his findings against the Home Secretary, Sir Alex Allen defined bullying within the Civil Service as “intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down” emphasising that “legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance” will not amount to bullying.
Workplace bullying takes many forms and employers need to be alive to various forms of conduct that might detrimentally impact their employees. In Ms Patel’s case, “forceful expression, including some occasions of shouting and swearing” could be described as bullying.
Why does workplace bullying occur?
A recent Italian study looked into the potential causes of workplace bullying. Results from the study suggested:
“…that high job demand is a cause of bullying particularly for employees who report more symptoms of impaired mental health. The results are in line with the idea that individuals with impaired mental health have fewer personal resources (e.g., energy, self-control, assertiveness, and other coping skills) to deal with the tension generated by a high job demand. This, in turn, may lead them to experience more difficulties in regulating their behavior and emotional expression in interpersonal relationships. Thus, individuals with impaired mental health may more easily experience the behavioral and psychological processes (e.g., violation of social norms, underachievement) that lead to an employee becoming a target of bullying.”
The conclusions drawn from this study suggest that to prevent workplace bullying occurring or escalating, employers may wish to:
- Ensure workplace demands are kept under control, and
- In high demand professions such as finance and law, train managers to recognise when an employee is experiencing symptoms of impaired mental health which could lead to them becoming the target of bullying.
As we move into a post-Covid-19 world where more employees work remotely on a full-time or part-time basis, this change from office to home will have a positive effect on mental health for many, however for others, the opposite will be true. Employers and employees alike must be alive to this.
Workplace bullying and homeworking
For some, being isolated from colleagues and missing out on after-work social activities detrimentally affects their ability to build relationships. And for employers, bullying can be harder to detect in a remote working environment. Furthermore, effective communication can quickly deteriorate because some team members are simply forgotten about.
Tracey Paxton, Managing Director at The Employee Resilience Company Limited told the HR Director Magazine:
“The main issues of bullying when working from home include misinterpreted emails and wider miscommunication, combined with isolation causing workers to act and react irrationally whilst deflecting their emotion and anxiety onto others. That there are no firm boundaries when it comes to communications outside of business hours creates added pressure. And where instances of bullying are directed at a worker who is working from home, a place that they would normally associate with safety and ‘quiet enjoyment’, the effect can be heightened as the worker has no ‘safe haven’ to retreat to at the end of the day.”
Employers’ responsibilities when it comes to health and safety compliance is the same for homeworkers as it is for office-based staff. To prevent situations developing in which workplace bullying could take hold, line managers must ensure they regularly touch base with remote workers and create an environment where all employees feel confident enough to air any concerns.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can contact Samaritans 24/7 on 116 123 (free from any phone) to talk to someone confidentially.
Workplace bullying and harassment should be taken seriously by employers and employees. Legal advice should be sought as soon as possible. BDBF are employment law specialists in the insurance, academic, medical, legal, and financial services sectors. Please contact us on 020 3828 0350 for employment law advice. All enquiries are treated in the strictest confidence.