News | July 25, 2019

Dealing with a bullying complaint – Your difficult questions answered

What is the definition of workplace bullying?

There is no legal definition of bullying, but ACAS defines it as “any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended”. Suspected bullying needs to be treated seriously to avoid situations where an employee’s trust and confidence is undermined. Failure to do so could lead to claims for constructive dismissal, personal injury and/ or discrimination where linked to a protected characteristic such as sex or race.

What if the accuser wishes to remain anonymous?

Ask why; the answer may seem obvious, but unless there is a genuine fear of reprisal, anonymity can rarely be justified. The alleged perpetrator is entitled to fully understand the case against them to be able to challenge it and anonymising the evidence can jeopardise the fairness of any investigation and formal process. It may be possible to address the issues informally on an anonymous basis but the avenues available to the employer are then limited.

Anonymisation does, of course, have its limits. The alleged perpetrator is likely to know or guess who has made the complaint and remember that you will not (usually) be able to prevent the identities being disclosed if the matter turns into litigation. We therefore caution against employer guaranteeing anonymity.

Instead, it is best to reassure the accuser that the information they provide will be treated sensitively and given them a contact in the event that further issues arise.

What if the accuser does not want to raise the complaint formally?

We see this frequently. Again, you may be able to ask why and seek to address their concerns. Another way to approach this is to ask whether you can discuss it informally with the alleged perpetrator. This raises its own issues and will need to be dealt with sensitively, since the alleged perpetrator may feel that they do not have the same opportunity to vindicate themselves that a formal process may give them.