Toxic workplaces – when does it become a legal matter?

August 18th, 2021

The school playground is notorious for bullying. But if you think that stops when you leave school and go to work, you’d be sadly mistaken. Bullying in the workplace is a common occurrence for thousands of UK employees, who are subjected to daily harassment and undue pressure from both bosses and work colleagues. So when does ‘tough management’ or ‘office banter’ tip over into bullying, and what can workers do if they feel they’re trapped in a toxic workplace?

Why is a toxic workplace so bad?

Toxic workplaces are bad for both employers and employees, with a loss of productivity, high levels of stress and sickness and high employee turnover being bad for business. The impact of a negative work atmosphere can vary from stagnating people’s careers and reducing their work/life balance, to having a serious and long‐term impact on an employee’s mental health.

Workers should feel safe and supported from the moment they step into their place of work to the moment they leave. To ensure that this is the case, bosses have a duty of care to protect their employees health from harmful bullying.  Most responsible employers will have a bullying and harassment policy and will take steps to actively enforce that policy in the workplace.

What if your boss is the problem?

Bullying in the workplace isn’t restricted to overly boisterous banter or conflict between employees. Sometimes, the boss is the problem, putting undue pressure on employees to achieve unreachable targets or, as we move more towards a telecommuting workforce, blurring the line between home and work life. The employer may simply see their style of management as ‘robust’. But there is a point where this tough management style can tip over into outright bullying. At that stage legal intervention may be required to rectify the situation.  It is now a well established legal principle that if an employee is bullied by their line manager, then a business will be liable for this, even if the owners or directors of that business were unaware that such bullying was taking place. This was confirmed in the 1990 constructive unfair dismissal case of Hilton Hotels Limited v Protopapa.

What constitutes bullying in the workplace?

Bullying doesn’t have to be physical (and if it is, then that’s a matter for the police). ‘Banter’ is often used as a cover for bullying, and can be verbal or non‐verbal (via email), comments on social media, or a range of issues that can include:

  • Abuse of power to undermine a subordinate employee;
  • Overbearing levels of supervision or monitoring;
  • Excessive criticism or being disciplined in front of other work colleagues. This will often take the form of copying numerous other employees into emails criticising the employee;
  • Constant threats to job security – you’ll get ‘sacked’ if you don’t comply;
  • Excluding, demeaning or ridiculing an employee;
  • Withholding necessary work related information without justification;
  • Setting someone up for fail e.g. target/ objective that simply cannot be achieved;
  • Constant changing of targets for no justifiable reason;
  • Unreasonably blocking requests for leave;
  • Unfair work allocation; and
  • Persistent undermining of an individual’s effort.

What can you do?

It doesn’t matter who’s doing the bullying – a toxic workplace is an intolerable place to be for anyone. In the first instance (and as long as the person you talk to isn’t the one doing the bullying), it’s important to open up a line of communication. Often, these situations can be sorted out quickly and easily by alerting a manager to the problem.

If, however, that doesn’t cure the problem then the next port of call should be to utilise your employer’s grievance procedure.  By raising the matter formally, your employer will be under a duty to properly investigate and act upon your concerns.  You can seek help in doing this from either a union representative or an employment law specialist.

From a legal point of view, if you can establish that you have been the victim of bullying and your employer has not properly investigated your concerns and took steps to prevent such bullying taking place in the future, then this would be both a breach of :-

  • your employer’s duty of care to provide a safe system of work; and
  • the implied term of mutual trust and confidence that exists in all employment contracts.

Similarly, if it is your boss who has been the bully, then your employer will be deemed to have breached the duties above, irrespective of whether you have raised a grievance.

In either case you may be able to bring a claim for unfair constructive dismissal (if you have more than 2 years service) or personal injury (which does not require any minimum period of service).  In extreme cases of bullying, you may also have a claim for breach of the Protection from harassment Act, which is actually a criminal offence.

If you are dismissed for raising concerns about bullying, you may also be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal, irrespective of your length of service.

If the bullying has focused on your gender, race, religion, sexuality or disability then you will also be able to pursue a case for unlawful discrimination, irrespective of how long you have been employed for.

All employers should have a policy in place that outlines procedures for dealing with workplace bullying. It’s important that you follow these procedures if you want to challenge your boss about harassment or bullying. Doing so puts you in a much stronger position if your case is referred to an employment tribunal.

If you feel that your workplace is becoming toxic or you are the victim of workplace bullying, then contact one of our employment law specialists now, and they’ll work with you in complete confidence to find a resolution.