Though an employee cannot make a direct complaint about bullying in the workplace, employers still have responsibilities towards their employees and can be liable for other employees' bullying behaviour, said Ashley Graham, an employment lawyer with Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM.
"It is not possible to make a direct complaint to an employment tribunal about bullying," she said. "However, employees might be able to bring complaints under laws covering discrimination and harassment if they feel that the bullying was related to sex, race, disability, sexual orientation or religious belief."
There are also other ways in which an employee might seek to hold an employer responsible for colleagues' ill treatment of them, said Graham.
"An employee may resign and claim that they have been constructively dismissed. In order to do this they would have to show that the employer has breached their contract in some way, by allowing the bullying to take place," she said.
"If the employee can show that they have suffered some form of personal injury, they could also raise a court action against the employer for damages in respect of that injury," said Graham, pointing out that the consequences for employers can be severe.
"In 2006 an ex-employee of Deutsche Bank was awarded over £800,000 in damages because the court held that the damage caused to her psychological health was so severe that she would never be able to work in that type of environment again."
Graham said that there are four things that employers should do if they want to reduce the likelihood of bullying taking place. They are: implement a written anti-bullying and harassment policy; provide training to managers on bullying; promote a culture of dignity and respect, and monitor opinions on bullying within the organisation.
Organisations faced with accusations of bullying should follow a clear procedure. "Treat the complaints seriously and under a defined procedure, such as the company's grievance procedure," said Graham. "Then investigate the complaints thoroughly and independently, but within a reasonable period of time, and be prepared to take action against the perpetrators if appropriate."
Employees should ensure that they raise any concerns they have about bullying with their employer, said Joanne Lezemore, senior lawyer for consumer organisation Which?'s legal service.
“Employees are often frightened to raise a grievance, especially where the bullying is being carried out by their boss. But if they don’t raise the grievance, not only are they suffering in silence, but legally they could not make a claim in the employment tribunal," she said.
“People do not have to tolerate bullying at work. In many cases they can take pre-emptive action by taking advice on the terms of their contract. If you know and understand your legal rights at work, you can deal effectively with any problems as soon as they arise, rather than having to figure out what to do when you’re already in a stressful situation," said Lezemore.
Graham warned that tolerating bullying can have a number of negative effects on a whole business and not just on the bullied employee.
"The impacts of bullying can be detrimental to your business. These can include lost time due to sickness absence, a drop in performance and morale generally, and reputational damage which can potentially have a knock-on effect on recruitment or custom," she said.
Dealing properly with bullying when it happens can also help in the defence against claims, she said. "Employers who can demonstrate that they have taken steps to prevent bullying and that they promote a culture where they treat complaints of bullying seriously will be significantly better placed to defend any legal action taken against them for bullying than those that cannot."
Bullying: golden rules for employers
Ashley Graham's four tips...
Implement a written anti-bullying and harassment policy. The policy should clearly set out what constitutes bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour and explain that disciplinary action will be taken against anyone found to have behaved in breach of the standards set out in the policy.
The policy should also contain guidance on what employees should do if they feel that they are being bullied. This will include formal means of resolution such as through the company grievance procedure. Also include other sources of support such as an internal helpline number, or external sources of advice such any of the bullying helplines that are available by telephone and online.
Provide training to managers, or even to all levels of staff, about what constitutes bullying and how to deal with it. Managers in particular should be given the training and awareness to allow them to identify potential issues before they escalate into anything more serious, and tackle them in a way that is sensitive rather than inflammatory.
Promote a culture of dignity and respect within your organisation, where everyone is clear that bullying will not be tolerated and know what the company's approach is to complaints. One of the greatest barriers in dealing with bullying effectively is removing the culture where 'victims' are afraid to come forward, or managers are reluctant to interfere.
Use some form of monitoring tool to assess current opinions on the issue of bullying within your organisation, and allow information to be gathered on a confidential basis, e.g. staff surveys or some form of discussion forum (in person or on the company intranet).