Bullying has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, demonstrating that no matter how high you fly, wings can be burned.
These cases show the importance of having the right policies and working practices in place, and for organisations to work on creating the right culture for everyone, especially for those at the most senior level as they cannot be ‘above’ such things.
In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination and harassment that is related to a protected characteristic. These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation; also pregnancy and maternity where the protection against harassment is subject to slightly different rules.
And while bullying itself is not against the law, it can easily become harassment, which is unlawful. Harassment is when a worker is subjected to unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Examples include making offensive sexual comments, or abusing someone for their race, religion or sexual orientation.
It means all employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and may be liable for discrimination or harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.
Everyone is entitled to work in a safe environment, free from harassment, including raised voices and inappropriate attention, whatever the circumstances and whatever their status. It’s vital that policies and culture in the workplace are clearly understood and exhibited at all levels.
Importantly, when complaints are made against senior staff, clear action should be taken to tackle the sort of behaviour which caused the problem.
But bullying is not confined to those in more senior positions and a regular review can help uncover instances of bullying at all levels and identify routes to resolve tricky relationships. One recent case highlighted the challenges that can arise, here for a manager in charge of a neurodiverse employee who exhibited challenging behaviour, at times reducing the manager to tears. Reviewing the case of McQueen v General Optical Council the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld a decision that the employee had not been discriminated against when he was disciplined for aggressive and disruptive conduct, which he had argued was due to his recognised disability.
This case was complex, and employers can’t assume it provides a template for a similar situation, but it does demonstrate how an individual may feel they can expect ‘special’ treatment and are allowed to behave differently to others, whether through seniority or for other complex reasons, such as here.
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*This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.