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.