Over recent years, there has been a lot of media coverage about allegations of bullying in Westminster. Currently, the focus is on Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and the deputy prime minister. It has been reported that at least 24 civil servants are involved in formal complaints against him. Some of these civil servants are said to be in senior roles and he is alleged to have “belittled and demeaned” them and was “very rude and aggressive” on multiple occasions daily. Individuals were said to have been physically sick before meetings with him, often in tears and in more than one case, left feeling suicidal after interactions with him.
There is currently an active official enquiry into his alleged bullying led by Adam Tolley KC. In the meantime, Mr Raab remains in post and the Prime Minister has rejected calls to suspend him. The opposition parties have asserted that in any other workplace, outside of Westminster, he would have been suspended whilst the investigation was taking place.
So, what should employers do when they receive allegations of bullying? Naturally, the starting point would be to arrange a meeting with the individual/s who have made the allegations and have an open mind. Bullying is a serious allegation to make and not every incident of poor behaviour will amount to bullying. Bullying is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour involving the misuse of power that can make a person feel vulnerable, upset, humiliated, undermined or threatened. Power does not always mean being in a position of authority but can include both personal strength and the power to coerce through fear or intimidation.
Bullying can take the form of physical, verbal and non-verbal conduct. Bullying may include, for example:
- Physical or psychological threats
- Overbearing and intimidating levels of supervision
- Inappropriate derogatory remarks about someone’s performance
Legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance or behaviour, or reasonable instructions given to workers in the course of their employment, will not amount to bullying on their own.
After meeting with the employee who has made the allegations, you will need to decide whether it is appropriate to suspend them from work whilst you undertake an investigation. Most of the time, if the allegations could amount to the definition of bullying set out above, suspension will be the right thing to do. Always err on the side of caution and remember that you will need to continue to pay the alleged bully whilst they are suspended.
After you have concluded your investigation, you will need to decide on next steps – if there are reasonable grounds to believe that there has been bullying, this could result in disciplinary action against the perpetrator. You will also need to keep the victim informed and assure them that they will not face any retaliation for bringing the issue to your attention. You may also need to offer them some time off work to heal and or arrange counselling for them or at the least offer to pay for them. Remember that in nearly all cases you will be vicariously liable for the actions of the bully as their employer.
Individuals cannot bring a stand alone claim for bullying in the Employment Tribunal. However, depending on the circumstances, bullying could give rise to a number of different claims including harassment (if it is related to a protected characteristic) and or constructive dismissal. In extreme cases, there could be a personal injury claim.
This article does not constitute legal advice and reliance should not be placed on it. Please contact us or call us on 01483 303636 if you require specific legal advice on events surrounding bullying or to update your company handbook and policies.