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New protection against bullying at work?

View profile for Chloe Pereira
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The Bullying and Respect at Work Bill was presented to parliament this month. This proposed legislation aims to provide a statutory definition of workplace bullying, enable employees to bring claims related to bullying before employment tribunals, establish a Respect at Work Code to set minimum standards for respectful workplaces, grant powers to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate bullying cultures, and address connected matters.

If this Bill makes it through the various stages and does become law, it will provide significant additional protection for employees. Currently, employees only have recourse if bullying is connected to a protected characteristic, or it is so bad that it gives rise to a fundamental breach of contract (enabling them to resign and claim constructive dismissal). 

Providing specific protection against bullying in the workplace will require a statutory definition of bullying. Acas already suggests the following as a description of bullying:

Unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting
  • an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone

It’s likely that any statutory definition will look very similar to that, and the existing definition of harassment set out in the Equality Act. If the Bill is passed, it will have a huge impact on our already overloaded Employment Tribunal system, as hundreds of individuals who previously had no recourse against bullying will have an avenue to pursue their complaints. It will also place further obligations on employers to ensure they have appropriate safeguards in place to protect their employees.

As with most new things, when first introduced its likely we’ll see a surge of complaints, and some employers who aren’t prepared enough finding themselves facing tribunal claims. However, the majority of employers will already have systems in place for addressing complaints and dealing with conflicts at work. 

General protection for employees from bullying at work, i.e. where the conduct isn’t necessarily connected to a protected characteristic, is long overdue and there is no reason why it can’t be managed in the same way as protection from harassment under the Equality Act is. It’s all about communication, training, policies and engagement.

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