Is #Priti #Patel a bully?

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It won’t surprise you that the question in the title is not one I am going to get into.

Firstly, just as I would be reluctant to label a child as a ‘naughty child’ just because they occasionally did something naughty, so I am reluctant to label any individual as being a ‘bully’ just because they may have displayed bullying behaviours.

Secondly, the concept of bullying means different things to different people and is somewhat difficult to define.

In a recent CIPD survey 20% of organisations reported an increase in negative conflict such as bullying and harassment in the workplace.  This is not surprising given the current covid related situation with so many people having to work in difficult circumstances.

Bullying and harassment are frequently complained of when employees are put under pressure in some way.  Their work is criticised, they are under the threat of redundancy, or their attendance is being reviewed are three typical examples.  This is not to suggest that it doesn’t also occur because some people intentionally or otherwise seek to intimidate or dominate colleagues.

In Priti Patel’s case, leaked reports in The Times suggest that she told civil servants that they were ‘f***ing useless’, and even the brief findings of the full report by Sir Alan Allan, reproduced in The Guardian, refers to ‘occasions of shouting and swearing’.

What is bullying?

The definition of bullying poses challenges, and I covered the similarities and differences between bullying and harassment in a previous blog about sexual harassment.

There are lots of different definitions of bullying (unlike harassment which has a legal definition in the Equality Act 2010), with the definition by #ACAS as the most frequently referred to

‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

The Civil Service have their own definition quoted in the report about the Home Secretary’s recent behaviour

‘intimidating or insulting behaviour that makes an individual feel uncomfortable, frightened, less respected or put down’.

Interestingly, the Civil Service guidance also makes this helpful comment

‘legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of a worker’s performance will not amount to bullying’.

How will I recognise it?

Helpfully, in another publication, ACAS give us a few examples which include

  • someone has spread a false rumour about you
  • someone keeps putting you down in meetings
  • your boss does not let you go on training courses but they allow everyone else to
  • your boss keeps giving you heavier workloads than everyone else
  • your team never lets you join social events

Sometimes physical intimidation can be involved such as when a boss stands or sits on their desk towering over an employee whilst addressing them, or invades their personal space.

Does intention matter?

Priti Patel said ‘I have never intentionally set out to upset anyone’.  Sir Alan’s report acknowledges that the bullying behaviours may not have been intentional and that the Home Secretary was ‘frustrated by the Home Office leadership’s lack of responsiveness’.  But, that’s not really the point, it’s more the effect that is important!

Unlike harassment (which is similar, but on the basis of some form of discrimination), bullying in itself can’t give rise to a claim in front of an Employment Tribunal.  In most cases bullying gives rise to a claim for constructive dismissal, and it is for the Tribunal to decide whether the behaviour complained of was so serious as to breach the implied duty of trust and confidence that should exist between an employee and their employer.

They may decide this in relation to Sir Philip Rutnam’s constructive dismissal claim against Priti Patel after he resigned in February alleging bullying and whistleblowing.

The intention of the perpetrator does not matter (it’s not an excuse).

Being the subject of bullying behaviour can make some people ill with stress/anxiety etc. and give rise to a personal injury claim, and it may even be a breach of an employer’s ‘duty of care’ in health and safety terms, particularly if nothing is done after a complaint.

What do employers need to do about bullying?

  • A clear Harassment and Bullying Policy (and the best will give examples so that employees understand the types of behaviours that are unacceptable) will be important in large organisations, but they are not everything.
  • What will be far more significant will be leaders challenging bullying behaviours, setting an example themselves, and providing guidance to individuals when unhelpful behaviours are observed. Remember, that for some people, it will be unintentional, and a quiet word will ‘nip it in the bud’.
  • Don’t forget that your responsibilities will also extend to events outside work, but that are reasonably connected to work – this could include the pub next door where everyone goes for a drink after work on Friday.
  • Either in work or connected to work in some way, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if nobody complains I don’t have to do anything. ‘I can’t do anything unless you put it in writing’ never has been an appropriate response in this area.
  • Encourage leaders to be proactive and create an environment where people feel it is safe to raise issues and that their concerns will be treated with appropriate confidentiality.

Above all, remember that colleagues do not perform at their best in an environment where bullying is allowed or condoned.  It rarely gets the best out of people, so there is a cost to the business.

Given the outstanding Rutnam case mentioned above, we have not heard the end of this matter.

For me, it’s provided a nice opportunity to write about something other than covid related employment matters.

Stay safe.

Ken Allison | 25 November 2020 | Paradigm Partners | www.paradigmpartners.co.uk

Ken Allison is an engaging trainer and speaker who manages to make his topics, highly interactive, challenging, entertaining, and above all, relevant to the 21st Century executive. Ken uses his understanding of managing businesses to show managers what they ‘can do’ rather than what they ‘cannot do’.

Ken specialises in taking the strain out of employment law related people issues through training workshops for managers, and his firm’s ‘ExecutiveHR’ service, providing telephone based support services to businesses throughout the UK.

Has sexual harassment in the workplace increased?

Here’s my take on one of the most covered employment related news topics this year, and answers to some key questions.

With the amount of press coverage given to the behaviour of politicians, aid workers, business leaders, film producers, and large companies such as #Google and #Uber involved with allegations in the last year, you could be forgiven for thinking that #sexualharassment in the workplace has increased.

It probably hasn’t, but there is little doubt that there has been increased reporting as various campaigns (#MeToo, #TimesUp etc) have drawn attention to this issue.  Despite all this attention, only 30% of respondents to a recent ACAS Survey thought that sexual harassment had decreased in the last five years and only 24% thought that recent international media coverage had improved their workplace culture.

We appear to have an endemic problem which in the past has not been reported.  In their ‘Ending sexual harassment at work report’ (2018) the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that approximately 50% of respondents had not reported harassment due to fears of consequent victimisation and a feeling that senior management was ‘untouchable’.

OK, so that’s the big picture, but what are the everyday questions that key decision makers in businesses need to understand.

What is sexual harassment?

It’s a form of discrimination, and there is a statutory definition found in the Equality Act 2010.  ACAS summarises it like this:-

‘Unwanted conduct related to ‘sex’ (editor), which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’.

The definition includes behaviour that might not be specifically aimed at one individual (for instance circulating offensive material of a sexual nature) and treating someone less favourably because they either accepted or rejected conduct of a sexual nature (someone gets overlooked for promotion because they rejected a sexual advance).

What is the difference between harassment and bullying?

People often claim these two things together.  There is a distinction, but it is quite a fine one!

Bullying is behaviour that has similar effects as harassment but is not on the basis of sex or any other characteristic that is protected by equality legislation.  It usually involves an abuse or misuse of power.

Bullying is not discrimination, but an aggrieved employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal, and if their health suffers, for instance because of persistent intimidation, they may well have a personal injury claim on the basis of the employer failing in their health and safety ‘duty of care’.

On the other hand, someone who suffers harassment can go to an Employment Tribunal and claim discrimination, for which compensation is uncapped.

Is it my responsibility to take action even if nobody is complaining?

Employees may be too scared to report this type of behaviour, but this does not mean you should ignore it if you know it is going on.

It will often be affecting performance, productivity, absence from work, and unnecessary staff turnover. It will be costing your business money, not to mention huge reputational risk.

The least you should do is investigate.

Do I need an anti-bullying and harassment policy?

If you have heard one of my #ceo briefings, you’ll know that I am not a great fan of solving things via a policy.  It rarely works.

Formal or informal (a quiet word) education and training and setting an example yourself, are likely to be more effective.

There is a big ‘however’ here though.

A policy (and the best will give examples so that employees understand the types of behaviours that are unacceptable) that is effectively reinforced may well prevent bullying and harassment, and if it doesn’t, it may still lead a Tribunal to conclude that an employer had taken reasonable steps to prevent these behaviours and thus not be liable.

If you are a small organisation without a policy, a Tribunal would take the size and resources of your organisation into account and is very unlikely to penalise you for not having one.

In summary, my advice would be if you have a staff handbook, then add a policy if you don’t already have one.  If you don’t have a staff handbook, don’t get one just for this reason.

Is telling someone what to do bullying or harassment?

Employees often claim bullying or harassment when they are told to do something they don’t like doing, or they are given critical feedback.

If you are asking someone to do something, and you would not ask someone of the opposite sex to do that, it may amount to harassment.  Similarly, if the manner you speak to someone is different because of their sex.

Ordinarily, just telling someone what to do or giving critical feedback is well within the expectations of an employment relationship, and I would make this clear in any policy with a statement such as:-

‘Legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism of your performance or behaviour, or reasonable instructions given to you in the course of your employment, will not amount to bullying on their own’.

Stories of sexual misconduct have caused considerable political embarrassment this year, and it is a shame that it takes this to encourage further action, although whilst the Government is otherwise distracted (sorry Bob – Bored of Brexit – I had to mention it!) we may see nothing more than promises.

There has been talk of :-

  • creating a mandatory duty to prevent sexual harassment (which would presumably require an employer to do something about an incident even if the victim did not want it pursued),
  • a ‘code of practice’ similar to those we have for discipline or flexible working,
  • the reinstatement of protection against third party harassment (various surveys have estimated that 15 to 20% of sexual harassment has been perpetrated by customers or clients)
  • extending Employment Tribunal claim limits from 3 to 6 months for sexual harassment cases,
  • banning redundancy during pregnancy, maternity leave and for six months afterwards (in 2015 54,000 women lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy discrimination) as is already the case in Germany,
  • extending protection from sexual harassment to volunteers and interns, and
  • making ‘gagging’ clauses illegal in respect of sexual harassment.

The moral here is not to wait for legislation.

Take some of the steps outlined above.  Investigate concerns, set an example yourself, have a preventative quite word where necessary, and get and promote a policy (surprise, surprise, we can provide one if you want).

 

Ken Allison | 28 November 2018 | Paradigm Partners | www.paradigmpartners.co.uk

Ken Allison is an engaging trainer and speaker who manages to make his topics, on handling employment law related people issues and other HR stuff, highly interactive, challenging, entertaining, and above all, relevant to the 21st Century executive. Ken uses his understanding of managing businesses to show managers what they ‘can do’ rather than what they ‘cannot do’.

Through his firm’s ‘ExecutiveHR’ service, Ken also provides telephone based support services to businesses throughout the UK.

This blog is not a substitute for taking legal advice!