16/11/2010

This week is National Anti-Bullying Week. While bullying is often associated with children and school playgrounds, it unfortunately is also common in the workplace, where it often either goes unnoticed or is ignored. Statistics released on the Anti-Bullying Helpline website show that 1in 4 employees say they are currently experiencing bullying at work, while 1 in 8 employees say they have been affected by witnessing workplace bullying.

These statistics appear to support a trend which we have noticed from our own practice areas. In the current difficult economic climate, more and more businesses are under pressure, and this in turn puts pressure on staff. This pressure is not always positive and we have noticed a significant increase in stress and bullying claims. There is a “fine line” to be drawn between good, active management and bullying behaviour, and sometimes this line is being crossed.

Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power and power does not always mean being in a position of authority. It can also include things such as personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation.

Workplace bullying damages morale and frequently results in an increase in sickness absence, often due to stress, and accordingly has a negative impact on the productivity of a business. Absence due to stress alone is costing the UK economy £13.4 billion per year, which is particularly significant in the current climate where employers face challenges every day to reduce losses and maintain or increase profits.

It’s also concerning that the statistics reveal that 80% of managers know that bullying occurs in their workplace, yet 37% have had no proper training in tackling this issue. This not only causes problems regarding workforce productivity, but also increases the exposure of employers to legal claims of bullying and harassment.

In our view, a productive working environment is more likely to be achieved through prevention, rather than cure. By developing, enforcing and implementing strict anti-bullying policies, businesses can reduce the likelihood of bullying in their workplace occurring and better protect themselves from potential liability if they are faced with a complaint of it taking place.

It’s important therefore that you have in place an anti-bullying and harassment policy, which clearly defines what types of behaviour are unacceptable and cross the line into bullying. The policy should cover harassment and bullying both inside and outside of the workplace, such as on business trips or at work-related functions, and should include references not only to bullying and harassment by staff but also by third parties such as customers, visitors and suppliers.

Furthermore, you should have a reporting procedure in place to enable employees to raise any issues they may have in confidence with senior management, and any complaints should always be dealt with promptly. There should also be a disciplinary procedure in place to deal with the situation where an employee has been accused of bullying and that procedure should be applied fairly and consistently.

It’s also important that effective training is provided at all levels, from management to support staff. Managers in particular should be given specific responsibility for setting an appropriate standard of behaviour, for leading by example and for adhering to the policies and promoting equality and diversity.

Putting policies and training in place now will help prevent and/or limit large compensation claims arising. We can help you with this. We can prepare anti-bullying and harassment policies for you or review and update your existing policies. We can also help train your staff, so that the policies are of real use rather than simply gathering dust in a drawer.

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