November 24, 2020

Workplace bullying when there's no one in the office

Workplace bullying will not necessarily disappear with the shift away from the physical office. It can take place in a whole host of environments and can have particularly damaging effects on victims if it operates virtually. 

Further to anti-bullying week and the recent findings against Priti Patel, we take a closer look at how bullying can manifest in the virtual workplace and what you can do about it.  

The magnifying effect of working from home

There has been a noticeable blurring of boundaries between home and office as many work remotely in light of the pandemic. While some reap the benefits of no longer having to commute, those experiencing bullying or harassment may feel even more isolated and like there is no escape from a distressing relationship with a manager or colleague. 

The distress caused can be compounded even further by the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and the remote working environment. Even if unintentional, instructions or feedback can easily be miscommunicated over email and leave fellow colleagues feeling anxious, micromanaged or undervalued at work. Bullied employees may also feel less inclined to come forward against a backdrop of mass redundancies due to COVID-19 and the increased pressure on HR teams as a result. 

Despite these turbulent times it is crucial that employers are aware of their reduced visibility over issues within their teams. They should seek to proactively engage with staff and encourage employees to come forward sooner rather than later if they are experiencing bullying behaviours.

What is bullying?

Bullying can manifest in a huge variety of forms and can easily adapt to the virtual setting. 

While the word ‘bullying’ is not defined in english employment law, the term ‘harassment’ is. Under section 26(1) of the Equality Act 2010, harassment is defined as unwanted conduct that ‘violates someone’s dignity or creates an intimidating degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them’. 

Employers have a legal responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their staff - including one without bullying and harassment. This responsibility does not change simply because employees are working from home.

Examples of bullying or harassment the remote workplace could include: 

  • An employee posting offensive comments about another colleague on their social media accounts;
  • Persistent exclusion of one member of staff from team meetings or online socials;
  • Covert surveillance of an employee with no legitimate grounds to do so;
  • Penalising one employee more than others for their time offline or login time; 
  • Excessive micromanaging;
  • A manager deliberately setting up an employee to fail through impossible targets;
  • Belittling or criticising one employee in emails with a wide distribution; or
  • Deliberately ignoring an employee when they are making an effort to contribute.

Crucially, it does not matter if the bullying is intentional, it is the effect of the behaviour on victims that counts. 

The above list is by no means exhaustive and as technology advances (e.g. in video conferencing or instant message features) there will undoubtedly be new adapted forms of bullying which we should all be mindful of. 

What can I do if I’m being bullied?

Even though it is not your responsibility, if you’re the victim of bullying it is likely that you will need to take the first step to get the help you need. It is completely up to you what course of action you take, whether it’s an informal conversation or more formal escalation.

Informal action:

If you feel comfortable doing so, you could call out the bully’s behaviour in the first instance, explaining to them how their behaviours make you feel e.g. “when you raise your voice it makes me uncomfortable”, or “I feel that the targets you have set me are unfair”. These types of statements show that you’re not accepting their behaviour and this may be enough of a wake up call without needing to proceed to more formal action. 

You may however feel understandably uncomfortable approaching the bully directly. You could instead seek confidential advice from a HR representative, your line manager (or their line manager if need be), or even a trade union representative if you have one.  

Formal action:

If available, you should always review your employer’s bullying and harassment policy to see what channels might be available to you. This can usually be found on a company’s intranet page and will include information about how to raise a formal grievance if you decide this is the most appropriate course of action. 

If you raise a formal grievance, your employer will need to investigate the issues you’ve raised and respond appropriately in order to prevent the situation from escalating further. This will likely involve meetings to discuss the contents of your grievance and you may be asked to provide some evidence if available e.g. copies of emails. 

If a finding is made against the bully, they could face a range of sanctions, from a formal written warning, to dismissal in the most serious of cases. HR could also ask the two of you to take part in workplace mediation with a third party mediator, or request that the bully attends specific training. In larger organisations, employers may also have enough flexibility to permanently move one of you to another team if the relationship between you has broken down completely. 

Legal action:

If you feel unsatisfied with the outcome of a formal grievance investigation, you may feel that legal action is required. We summarise below some of the claims that may be available to you. This list is by no means exhaustive and you should always seek specialist advice tailored to your individual circumstances. 

Constructive dismissal claim: 
  • If you have been working for your employer for more than two years, you may be able to bring a claim against them for constructive dismissal. This is where your employer is in breach of an implied term of trust and confidence, which basically means their legal obligation to act reasonably towards you.
  • So if, for example, you feel compelled to resign because a senior member of staff is bullying you, and the grievance process is not resolved satisfactorily by your employer, you may be able to claim constructive dismissal. 
  • It is important to stress that because you need to resign to make this claim, this approach is not without risk - you should always seek legal advice before taking decisive action. 

Claim under the Equality Act 2010: 
  • If the bullying, or ‘harassment’ (as defined in the Equality Act 2010) is because of a ‘protected characteristic’ (i.e. your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation), you may be able to bring an Employment Tribunal claim for harassment under the Equality Act 2010. 
  • Crucially you do not need to resign, or have two years service to bring a harassment claim on grounds of a protected characteristic.
  • You should seek legal advice before bringing this claim and you should also contact ACAS

Claim under Protection from Harassment Act 1997: 
  • There is also the option of bringing a claim against your employer in the County Court under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. 
  • This is a less common route, but can be claimed if your employer has engaged in at least two separate incidents of harassment against you. This includes any acts of harassment committed by other employees in the course of their employment. 
  • Importantly this claim can be made without reliance on a ‘protected characteristics’ (as is the case for claims made under the Equality Act 2010).
  • This can be a complex claim so, as above, you should seek specialist advice before taking action. 

Our top tips:

  • Don’t suffer in silence - doing nothing is unlikely to resolve the issue and may even validate the bully’s unacceptable behaviour. If you feel comfortable, reach out to HR, a senior colleague or your trade union rep for guidance. 
  • If available, read the policies provided by your employer relating to bullying and harassment. They may provide useful resources to support you. 
  • Keep a written record of any incidents which you think show bullying or harassment towards you. If you choose to take things further, either by making a formal grievance or bringing a legal claim, contemporaneous written notes are one of the best sources of evidence to show what really happened. 
  • Think about what resolution might be satisfactory to you and communicate this to your employer e.g. you think you’d like to move teams or work on a different project. 
  • Consult external resources for further guidance such as the National Bullying Helpline , Bullying UK, or ACAS. 
  • Always seek legal advice before pursuing any claim in the Employment Tribunal or County Court.

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