In last month’s employment law update we had a current affairs feature discussing the sexual harassment issues facing the NHS and Lloyds. This month we are putting a spotlight on workplace bullying.

Whilst harassment has a very clear definition under Section 26 Equality Act 2010, bullying has no real statutory definition. Nearly all cases of harassment under the Equality Act 2010 will incorporate an element of bullying, not all forms of bullying are to do with protected characteristics meaning not all bullying is harassment. These such cases are often difficult to pigeonhole into a type of legal claim.

Whilst bullying is a legal grey area, it does not mean it does not pose a threat to business. ACAS have estimated that bullying costs the UK economy £18 billion a year. ACAS also receives over 20,000 complaints of bullying in the same period, this of course are the ones who dare to raise the issue, with many not having the courage to do so.

Many employees who are victims of bullying often spend time off sick, placing a strain on business resources. For those that do return to work can pose additional resource problems, as discussed in last week’s case law update a common mistake manages make is to try and move people and work around the bully instead of tackling the issue head on.

This month has brought the issue of bullying into focus after some big employers made headlines due to poor workplace environments. First up, the Ministry of Defence (MOD), following the Wigston review, has vowed to tackle workplace bullying and harassment.

The report found that roughly 12% of MOD staff had been the victim of bullying but only half of these reported the issue. Reasons given for not reporting included lack of faith in the complaints procedure and fear their career would stall as a result of making the complaint. Many of those who were victims of bullying held protected characteristics but some were also civilian staff working alongside military personnel.

The MOD has pledged to revamp its complaints procedure and allow anonymous reporting to ensure victims of bullying can make complaints without fear of reprisal. Given the report highlights an issue with outdated leadership allowing a bullying culture to fester, perhaps more sterner measures are needed.

Whilst on the topic of new complaints procedures, a few months ago we covered the Cox Report, which highlighted bullying and harassment that was going on at the Houses of Parliament. The report proposed introducing a new complaints policy to tackle the bullying faced by both MPs and civil servants.

Since then, a further review has found that the new procedure is highly ineffective and that victims of bullying have described using the procedure as career suicide – take note MOD. The report also introduced training for MPs and staff but only 34 of 650 MPs took up the training.

To address the issue properly, the new report proposes a Parliament HR department that has autonomy over actions of civil servants, MPs and MPs staff. This would include enforcement action against those found to be bullying others. In our last update on this topic we mentioned the risk of developing a bullying reputation could pose.

However, another issue is that as politicians, Parliament should be setting the example. If they cannot literally get their own house in order, how can they set legislation to tackle bullying nationwide? Furthermore, an additional strain of resources is the financial and resource cost of a series of investigations into improving the workplace culture.

Our final and bleakest bullying case study this month comes from telecoms provider, Orange. The case relates to French proceedings, where the company is based but similar cases could apply in the UK under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997.

In the French case, Orange and three of its top executives led a campaign in the 2000s to pressure staff that could not be “pushed out the door to jump out the window” in bid to reduce staff levels by 22,000. The resultant policy resulted in the suicides of at least 19 people who intimated that working conditions are what led to them taking their own lives.

The suicides included a man setting himself on fire at work and a women jumping out of her office window in view of colleagues. The company and its executives are being sued for moral harassment and they are facing a maximum fine of €75,000.00 (a paltry sum) together with a 12-month prison sentence. If nothing else, this case illustrates that individual perpetrators of bullying and harassment can be criminally liable.

Following his redundancy book, A Practical Guide to Redundancy, PJH Law’s, Philip Hyland is doing a follow up (the difficult second album) based on bullying and harassment. Like the redundancy book, the bullying and harassment book will be aimed to practically outline both issues to HR and senior managers. To show interest in the book, please contact us.