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Dealing with bullying at work

Published 23 November 2020

The question as to how employers should deal with bullying in the workplace has made headlines – and it’s a question that cannot be ignored.

Bullying is always a highly emotive and difficult issue for any employer to have to deal with. It raises extremely personal allegations and of abuse of power.

Under fire Home Secretary Priti Patel kept her job despite an inquiry reportedly finding that she bullied colleagues. It is said that her actions had not been intentional.

Ms Patel, who vehemently denied the allegations, said she was sorry for any upset caused by her behaviour (1).

She is reported to have been warned previously (August 2019) not to ‘swear and shout at staff’.

An independent investigation found Ms Patel had ‘created fear’ within the department, and that her behaviour ‘had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect.’

The ministerial code is a government document that details the expected standards of behaviour in office, which include ‘consideration and respect’ for civil servants and other colleagues (2)

The code says harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour will not be tolerated.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has backed Ms Patel. It led to the dramatic resignation of Sir Alex Allan, standards chief, after the PM overruled his conclusion that the Home Secretary breached the ministerial code

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party, said: “It is hard to imagine another workplace in the UK where this behaviour would be condoned by those at the top. The Government should be setting an example.” (3)

All employers are expected to take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. Most employers will consider bullying an act of gross misconduct, which if proven can lead to dismissal.

It is worth noting that even with a serious allegation such as bullying, dismissal should not be an automatic sanction. Mitigating factors may in fact mean that dismissal is not within a range of reasonable responses.

Any investigation into allegations of workplace bullying should be thorough and fair.

Bullying, it appears, remains a scourge in workplaces across the country.

A recent report said it found ‘a shocking number of employees admitted to either experiencing or witnessing bullying or harassment in the workplace, but didn’t feel they could speak up.’ (4)

ACAS in its Bullying and Harassment at Work guide characterise bullying as: offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient (5)

Bullying is defined largely by the impact of the behaviour on the recipient, not its intention.

In order to determine if an individual has been bullied it is necessary for an employer to understand their perception of the treatment they have suffered

Employers should have robust procedures in place to deal with bullying in the workplace. Employees should be aware of such procedures, and of how they can report any concerns.

Any investigation into allegations of bullying should be effective, impartial and objective.

If evidence of bullying is established then immediate action must be taken to investigate and address it.

It can take incredible courage for the victims of bullying to raise a formal complaint. It is vital that they are supported and do not suffer any form of retaliation or victimisation as a result.

Failing to properly and fairly deal with allegations of bullying can have serious repercussions for employers.

The complaint may relate to sensitive and high-risk employment matters such as harassment. Bullying itself is not against the law, but harassment is, as it is unwanted behaviour related to a protected characteristic covered by the Equality Act 2010(6)

All allegations of workplace bullying must be treated seriously and investigated thoroughly and fairly without unreasonable delay.


(1) Ms. Patel has apologise for any upset caused by her behaviour. [Internet] [Cited 23/11/2020]

(2) What is the ministerial code?[Internet] [Cited 23/11/2020]

(3) The Government should be setting an example [Internet] [Cited 23/11/2020]

(4) A report found that people couldn’t speak up about bullying or harassment. [Internet] [Cited 23/11/2020]

(5) Bullying is characterised as; [Internet] [Cited 23/11/2020]

(6) Bullying itself is not against the law, but harassment is. [Internet] [Cited 23/11/2020]


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A reputation built on success

For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 

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