Woolly Bully

Workplace bullying is back in the news in the UK, so I thought it might be helpful to outline the position for small businesses.

Bullying isn’t defined in employment law, although harassment is (section 26 of the Equality Act) – harassment being ‘unwanted conduct that…violates someone’s dignity…or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for an individual (my emphasis). Although this definition of harassment relates specifically to the protected characteristics under the Act, it does form the basis for many organisations’ policies on conduct for all staff.

In practice, bullying is often considered to be harassment by someone in a position of power over the individual – such as a boss.

Bullying can take many forms, but some I’ve encountered in my working life include

  • Giving impossible targets for a subordinate  – setting someone up to fail
  • Making public derogatory comments about a more junior member of staff, either when they are present or to other team members in their absence
  • Shouting, swearing or other verbally aggressive behaviour.
  • Micromanaging an individual, picking up every slight error
  • Treating an individual differently (for example enforcing applying a strict lunchbreak when others are allowed to take as long as they like).

It’s important to remember that both the Equality Act and case law have made it clear that it is the perception of the individual, not the intention of the alleged bully that is what counts – so “I didn’t mean it” is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour, although it may be a mitigation for any penalty given (something I have discussed before).

Other excuses that won’t wash include “I just have high standards and expect everyone to conform to them” (you can have high standards without being aggressive towards your subordinates) “X is not up to the job” (performance management is about being supportive and agreeing clear targets) or “I’m just a woman operating in a man’s world, so I need to show I’m strong and decisive” (a poor culture doesn’t excuse your bad behaviour)

Of course, this doesn’t mean automatic dismissal for someone found to be bullying their subordinates – an employer is expected to make a reasonable decision considering all the circumstances of the situation. So a manager who hadn’t realised the effect their actions were having on their team members might be given a warning. It’s for you to decide. But you also need to consider the impact that not dealing with a bully will have on, not just on the individual who has raised the concern but on the rest of your workforce.

Bullying allegations can be difficult for small businesses to deal with, especially if the person accused is one of your key managers. But failing to act can lead to more negative consequences.

Managing a poor performer

The current UK General Election has flagged up an issue that concerns many small businesses – how do you manage a poorly performing employee without crossing the line into bullying or pushing the individual into going off sick, often with ill-defined ‘stress’.

It’s come into focus with the case of Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary. It’s been pretty clear to most people, including supporters of her own party, that she has had a disastrous election campaign, appearing not to know her own policies and struggling to answer basic questions. Given the importance of the role of Home Secretary – especially in the light of recent terrorist attacks – questioning her competence to do the job is legitimate.

But much of the criticism in recent days has been of a personal nature, and given that she is the highest profile black woman in UK politics there has been an undercurrent of racism and sexism to some of the criticism. She is, after all, not the only politician who has been exposed as not having a grasp of key policy details during the election campaign. The situation appears to have culminated in her going off sick for the remainder of the campaign.

Politics is not the same as business of course, and the dividing line between personal criticism and political division is blurred. But in the world of work, there’s also a danger that trying to manage poor performance can – deliberately or accidentally – move into the personal – which may lead to organisations facing discrimination or unfair dismissal claims.

So how should a small business manager deal with a similar situation?

Firstly – don’t avoid the situation. I often quote an Employment Judge who in a tribunal hearing, pointed out to the ex-employee that “it is the Employer’s responsibility and duty to make an employee aware if their performance is below the standards required”. Brushing things under the carpet makes it much harder to deal with things later.

Second – focus on the issues, not the individual. What exactly is it that is not being done correctly? Move from the personal “you’re hopeless at customer service” to the task “the wording of your email to this customer is unclear/antagonistic”

Thirdly – make it clear what improvements are expected, and by when, and outline what support you can give the person to achieve the required level of performance.

Fourth – don’t micromanage. Picking up an individual for every tiny error is not going to lead to an improvement, you’ll just end up shattering their confidence completely and ensure that they fail.

Of course, there are times when an individual employee is not up to the job and you may need to dismiss them as a result. But unlike politics, you should do this objectively and not on the basis of personal criticism and destroying their health.

Need to know more about this? You can find out more details here.