Well Managed or Harassed?

Old law used to extend employee protection from the “office bully”

Bullying and harassment should not have to be tolerated by anyone. The law has developed significantly over the last 40 years to protect individuals at work from discrimination based on sex, race, disability, religion and, most recently, age. Further recent developments now mean that the days of the “office bully” are now numbered.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was enacted to stop stalking and other forms of criminal harassment. For nearly 10 years, the law was on the statute books but was ignored by employment and matrimonial lawyers. Following a series of high-profile cases, new life has been breathed into the act. The act can now be used to punish an office bully or even a “mother-in-law from hell!”

Under the Protection from Harassment Act, a person must not pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which he or she knows or ought to know amounts to harassment. Damages can be awarded for, among other things, anxiety caused.

In an extreme example of the law being used in a matrimonial case, Gina Singh sued her former mother-in-law for ill treatment. Ms Singh had her hair cut off and her face scrubbed with bleach by her former mother-in-law. She was also prevented from visiting a GP when her hands became infected from too much cleaning. In July 2008 a court awarded Ms Singh damages of £35,000.

Bullying at work

At the less extreme end of the scale but perhaps more significant is the decision in theHarrassment Act case of Majrowski v Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust [2006] UKHL 34. Majrowski successfully argued that the bullying and harassment he suffered from a manager was sufficient to create a liability under the act for his employer. As a consequence, he was entitled to damages.

The Court of Appeal gave further guidance in Sunderland City Council v Conn [2008] EWCA Civ. In this case the court thought the context of the conduct was important: what might not be harassment in the barrack room could well be harassment in a hospital ward. The Conn case emphasises that the conduct required to bring a claim under the Protection from Harassment Act needs to be serious; however, it is not inconceivable that a bad-tempered, aggressive co-worker might tip over into conduct sufficiently serious to be regarded as criminal. Even if the act does not apply, an employee can still bring a more traditional claim, such as discrimination or constructive unfair dismissal.

Bullying/harassing behaviour can include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Ridiculing, demeaning or picking on someone
  • Supervising overbearingly or otherwise misusing one’s power or position
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances, such as touching, standing too close or displaying offensive materials
  • Making threats about job security without foundation
  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constantly criticising
  • Preventing individuals from progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities

Your employer is responsible for preventing this kind of bullying and harassing behaviour. It is in the employer’s interest to make it clear to everyone that such behaviour will not be tolerated. With this in mind, good employers should:

  • Have clear written policies on proper conduct
  • Have a written complaints procedure
  • Discourage overly aggressive management styles, bad language and aggressive behaviour
  • Promptly investigate any complaint and take disciplinary action if appropriate
  • Remind managers to guard against bullying
  • Remind staff that they could personally incur liability if they bully or harass colleagues

The workplace can be a stressful enough environment, so developments in the law to protect against bullying are very welcome.