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Mincoffs Solicitors LLP
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Newcastle upon Tyne
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Workplace Bullying - Employers Watch Out

13 March 2012

Workplace bullying is not only unpleasant and demotivating but it is also claimed to cost British business £14 billion annually. Surprisingly, there is no specific law relating to workplace bullying, although some forms of offensive behaviour would constitute discrimination for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Where an employee brings a claim under discrimination law, there is no statutory cap on the amount a tribunal can award in compensation.

In addition, there are remedies available to employees under the general law. Bullying, in law, is a form of harassment and an employer who fails to prevent bullying can, even without being negligent, be liable to pay damages under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 for harassment by one employee of another in the course of his or her work.

Employers who are themselves guilty of bullying staff, or those who fail to take action to prevent workplace bullying, could therefore face a costly settlement for compensation or damages, a fine or even a custodial sentence.

In a recent case, a bank employee earning £45,000 annually, who suffered a breakdown after she was subjected to a long-running campaign of bullying, was awarded £828,000 in damages.

Victims of bullying are often too frightened to take action to protect themselves. It is essential that employers take seriously their responsibility for preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace. Positive action must be taken to eliminate employee behaviour of a kind that could cause distress and anxiety to others. It is important that all workers understand that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Policies should state clearly that any instance of bullying will be taken seriously and the perpetrator dealt with severely.

It is also important to note that under the Equality Act an employer is potentially liable for harassment of an employee by a third party, for example a customer or client. This protection previously only applied on the ground of sex. It has now been extended to cover disability, age, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. It is now unlawful for an employer to fail to take reasonably practicable steps to protect an employee from harassment by a third party because of a protected characteristic where such harassment is known to have occurred on at least two other occasions. The person responsible for the harassment does not have to be the same on each occasion.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) provides useful information on this topic, including an e-learning course on understanding and preventing bullying in the workplace. This is free once you have registered to use the e-learning resources.