While strong leadership and management styles can be advantageous within the workplace, employers have a duty of care to ensure this does not develop into allegations of bullying by managers. Employers have a responsibility to protect the mental wellbeing of their workforce and this includes ensuring they are not subject to bullying or harassment, including when the perpetrator is a manager.
Strong manager or bully?
Strong managers are generally recognised as being direct, clear and fair. They have reasonable expectations and are good communicators, they explain what they want and also welcome and listen to feedback.
Any form of aggression, or threatening or intimidating workers, is not an acceptable form of management style and could be considered bullying. This can result in complaints and grievances against the manager.
Failure to take bullying allegations against a manager seriously or to handle such complaints appropriately can lead to issues for the employers, such as claims for constructive dismissal against the employer, if the worker feels they have no option than to resign because of the alleged bullying.
As well as managing the legal risk of bullying complaints, employers should take proactive steps to ensure they are nurturing a positive and engaging workplace culture, free from abuse, harassment or poor treatment. Bullying can lead to employees leaving the organisation. Reputational issues arise as employees share their experiences with other employees and people outside the organisation – damaging internal morale and the employer brand.
Examples of workplace bullying
Bullying is defined as “offensive, threatening, malevolent, or insulting bullying, involving an abuse or misuse of power by measures intended to undermine, humiliate, disparage, or harm the receiver” by the Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS).
Bullying is unlawful in the workplace. In the context of managers, bullying is usually where someone uses their position of authority over another person to intimidate them.
An employer can be held accountable for an employee bullying or discriminating against another individual on the grounds of certain protected characteristics, as defined in the Equality Act 2010, including race, religion or belief, pregnancy/maternity, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender reassignment, or age.
Abuse, verbal or physical abuse, humiliation, or weakening someone’s confidence are all examples of workplace bullying. Face-to-face, over the phone, in writing (including email), or through social media are all options. It includes (but is not limited to) the following items:
- Sexual remarks or remarks on a person’s sexual orientation are prohibited.
- Abuse/comments of a racial nature
- Religious slurs and remarks
- Being held responsible for the mistakes of others
- Being made fun of in front of coworkers
- Threatened with dismissal on a regular basis
- Promotion or training opportunities were unfairly denied to you.
- Giving someone too much work to do sets them up for failure.
It is important for employers to consider that people will have their own personal opinions and experiences as to what constitutes bullying, beyond any legal definition.
Here are several examples, ranging from the obvious to more subtle acts:
- Making threats.
- Handing out Physical and Verbal Abuse.
- Humiliating people in front of others.
- Refusing to listen to staff concerns.
- Ignoring people for promotion.
- Needlessly reviewing someone’s work.
- Addressing people by their job title or grade rather than by name.
- Sending intimidating or hurtful emails or text messages (cyber bullying).
Dealing with bullying allegations against a manager
Employers have a legal obligation to take all reasonable steps to prevent workplace bullying, including harassment and intimidation, regardless of the perpetrator’s position within the company. Supervisors, managers, directors, or coworkers may fall into this category.
Employees should follow the organisation’s grievance procedure when complaining of bullying by a manager. Typically, this would mean submitting the grievance in writing to the employee’s line manager, who should then forward it to another manager to investigate. If this is not practicable, the complaint should be directed to the manager’s manager or the human resources department.
When an employee brings a grievance that a manager has bullied them, it’s critical that you examine the accusation quickly, equitably, and decisively. The longer an issue is left unresolved, the more difficult it will be to address it.
This will entail investigating the matter, gathering evidence, and ascertaining the version of events from both parties, as well as any relevant witnesses.
At the time of the complaint and during the investigation, an employer has a duty of care to support both the victims and the suspected bully equally and impartially.
The accused employee must be given copies of any statements and/or any evidence, as well as enough time prior to any investigative/fact-finding meeting to examine the contents with a union representative (if one exists) or a colleague, and to take any necessary notes.
Employers should take steps to ensure that a fair and lawful investigation and grievance process has been followed, in accordance with the company’s bullying, harassment, and discrimination procedures, to reduce the risk of an employee resigning and claiming constructive dismissal as a result of a grievance. Keeping contemporaneous notes, retaining documentation, and keeping the employee informed about the status of their complaint can all help to lessen the likelihood of a tribunal claim.
If the suspected bully is proven guilty, they should be notified that they may face disciplinary action under the organisation’s disciplinary policy. This could involve a finding of gross misconduct, depending on the facts of the case.
It may be appropriate to provide assistance to the accused employee, and if your company provides counselling services, take advantage of them.
Depending on the nature of the allegations and the parties’ working relationship, it may be acceptable to consider suspension while the inquiry is continuing in some cases. If this course of action is chosen, the employee should be informed that it is being done in the purpose of ensuring a fair procedure and is not a punitive or disciplinary step. During any term of suspension, the employee should be paid as usual.
Any conclusion on the claims should be deferred until the inquiry is complete and all information has been evaluated.
Dealing with malicious complaints
It’s an unfortunate truth that sometimes, complaints of workplace bullying are made that are malicious and false.
This can have a significant negative influence on the accused person’s mental health as well as their reputation, potentially impacting their future employment opportunities.
It can be difficult to spot vexatious allegations of bullying, but you can reduce the risk of acting unfairly by following the organisation’s grievance procedure and conducting a thorough and impartial investigation.
Frequently, malicious complaints can stem from existing or long-standing issues with the complaining employee, such as underperformance, or from an organisational change, such as a restructure.
Managers should be encouraged and trained to address minor issues with team members and to recognise the potential for escalation early on, so that the organisation can take a fair and effective approach to address the issue before formal complaints are made.
Reducing the likelihood of bullying complaints
Unwanted behaviours can pervade an organisation’s culture if it fails to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, such as ‘managing’ and ‘bullying.’
Employers, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), should:
- Create and implement a policy against bullying and harassment.
- Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment.
- Be aware of elements specific to your company or industry that are linked to bullying, as well as the activities you need to take to effectively address them.
The following should be considered as a minimum requirement for developing an anti-bullying and harassment procedure:
- The creation of a statement from senior management reiterating the bullying and harassment policy.
- Define what behaviour is considered inappropriate in your company.
- A declaration detailing your company’s responsibility in terms of bullying prevention.
- Establish a mechanism for your employees to raise concerns about bullying that is clear and unambiguous.
pointing people in the direction of places where they can get emotional help
- Set out the processes that your company will take if a complaint of bullying or harassment is made. Determine how you will deal with the bully if you discover instances of bullying behaviour, such as through a disciplinary process or rehabilitation support.
- Every twelve months or so, it is a good idea to examine any rules and processes in place. Always do your utmost to keep them informed about current legislation and social media issues.
- Anti-bully rules and procedures are typically printed in the employee handbook or posted on the workplace intranet. Employees who are bullied at work are frequently sent to the company’s grievance system, where they can file their first complaint against a manager or coworker.
Even if your organisation has no rules or processes in place to address workplace bullying, harassment, or discrimination, you still have a legal obligation to safeguard your employees while they are on the job. You must treat any claims with extreme caution and seriousness, and you must treat all parties fairly. Failure to do so may result in a claim before an employment tribunal.
If an employee resigns because of unresolved workplace bullying, harassment, or discrimination, they may be eligible to file a constructive dismissal claim. The employee must have worked for the corporation for at least two years to be considered a “employee,” and they must file their claim within three months of the date they resigned, minus one day.
The former employee is also required to notify ACAS, where they will be offered the opportunity to participate in early conciliation mediation. This is a free service that allows both parties to reach an agreement without having to go to an employment tribunal.
DavidsonMorris’ employment law experts work with employers to support with resolving workforce management issues, including allegations relating to bullying, workplace investigations, grievances and disciplinaries. Working closely with our team of HR specialists, we provide a holistic approach to managing difficult circumstances that present considerable legal risk, such as where senior managers are involved. For help and advice on your legal options as an employer, speak to us.
Dealing with bullying allegations FAQs
How do you deal with being wrongly accused at work?
Employers should follow the organisation's grievance or disciplinary procedure to come to a decision on any complaint. This should involve a thorough and impartial investigation and hearing to allow all parties to put forward their version and for all evidence to be gathered and considered before an outcome is decided.
Last updated: 22 October 2023