12th April 2022

A direct management style or bullying? 3 reasons why employers need to understand the difference

All managers have their own style and perhaps one of the worst, is focused on discipline, hard truths and criticism which leads to, at best, a workforce that feels undervalued, resent their manager and aren’t motivated to be productive and, at worst, allegations of bullying.

You might be surprised to learn that there is no specific legal definition of, or prohibition on, bullying in the workplace. More often than not, a potential problem with a particular management style comes to light when an employee accuses their manager of verbally abusing them. Common complaints include a bullying tone of voice, inappropriate language, raised voice or shouting and being belittled in front of others. Typically, it’s about how the employee feels about the language and the communication style and whether the manager manages discreetly. Waiting to see if the situation sorts itself out is rarely an effective strategy.

In fact, to wait things out, or to simply either ignore the issue or dismiss the employee’s perception, is risky because depending on the circumstances, this behaviour, or bullying, could give rise to a number of different claims including:

  1. Discrimination. Is there a discriminatory element to the treatment, for example, could the treatment be said to amount to harassment related to a protected characteristic?
  2. Breach of an express or implied term of the contract of employment: For example, is there a contractual policy which the employer has failed to follow in dealing with the allegations or has the employer breached its implied duty to provide a suitable working environment?
  3. Constructive dismissal. If there has been breach of an express or implied term of the contract of employment, has the employee been constructively dismissed?

Instead, an employer should actively manage any grievance and do its best to seek an early resolution which might include accepting that the manager in question requires training in good communication skills and appropriate assertiveness.

However, it should always be remembered that, despite any desire an employer may have to address any allegation of bullying in the workplace, a grievance about bullying may just be a process an employee is going through with little expectation of, or desire to have, a better relationship with their manager. Instead, it is a necessary step towards the Tribunal claim they intend to bring. Therefore, every effort should be taken to ensure the grievance is taken seriously, the allegations are thoroughly investigated, the correct personnel are involved and good minutes are taken. 

Of course, prevention is better than cure and any existing policy on bullying should be reviewed to ensure that it reflects the desired culture, the workplace and technology. All managers should also receive annual training to ensure they know how to lead by example.

If you require advice about any of the issues highlighted or for any employment advice, please contact a member of the Blackadders Employment Team working in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth and across Scotland.

Donna Reynolds employment law partner

Donna Reynolds, Partner
Accredited by the Law Society of Scotland as a Specialist in Employment Law & Discrimination Law
@EmpLawyerDonna

www.blackadders.co.uk

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