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What's the Difference between Proactive ‘Management Style’ and Bullying?

By Solicitor, Employment

Sickness absences cost British industry almost £29 billion, according to research last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers. But how much of this sickness is caused by stress resulting from aggressive management? 

What might be seen by one colleague as straight talking might to another feel like harassment. There can be serious consequences when assertive management goes too far and one of those consequences is ill health.

It is the responsibility of Human Resources and managers to step in if they think a member of staff feels intimidated by their manager’s manner. Employers owe a duty of care to all members of staff and it's better for everyone involved to resolve the situation at an early stage. No-one should feel demeaned or undermined at work. Everyone has the right to feel safe and to have any workplace issues dealt with in a proportionate, professional manner.

Regular informal feedback, which is objective and constructive, and where the manager is open to requests for assistance and adjustments, is likely to help; so may performance appraisals which allow for feedback flowing both ways.

If there are minor concerns about an employee’s performance, the concerns should firstly be raised informally and privately. The manager should clearly explain the issue, refer to records, and give the employee an opportunity to explain any problems they face or identify that they need training or help.

If the problem persists, there should be a formal performance review meeting to which the employee is invited in advance and the shortcomings in their performance set out in writing, with documented examples. Any performance review meeting should ideally involve the manager who has raised the issue and a member of Human Resources to ensure that the matter is presented fairly and the employee is given the opportunity to explain or ask for help.

Any employee feeling harassed by their supervisor or manager should be encouraged to discuss it informally with their line manager or a member of Human Resources and, if the matter is genuinely serious or cannot be resolved informally, they may wish to submit a formal grievance.

Any grievance should be discussed with the employee (who is entitled by law to be accompanied at the meeting), investigated and resolved promptly. Training in good management techniques and/or equal opportunities issues should be considered for the manager involved and disciplinary action may even be appropriate. Sometimes though it will simply be a matter of the manager adjusting his style when dealing with a particular employee.

If potential bullying at work is not dealt with, the employee could claim discrimination if they feel picked on because of a ‘protected characteristic’ such as their race or the effects of medication they take for a disability. They could even resign and claim Constructive Dismissal if they feel seriously undermined; and if the bullying causes ill health they could potentially sue for personal injury.

On the other hand, if matters are highlighted and dealt with at an early stage, it may be that a frank but controlled Mediation meeting can bring the parties to agreement about what needs to be changed; to “draw a line in the sand” and take steps to bring the working relationship back on track.  

Bullying and intimidation at work should not be explained away as robust management style if it goes beyond what is reasonable and employees should be protected if they choose to come forward with genuine complaints. There should be clear grievance and whistleblowing policies in place which are followed and which safeguard employees. Equally, there should be clear policies and guidelines for managers facing performance problems with a member of their team.

A confidential counselling or helpline might assist some employees, as may the involvement of a welfare officer or Occupational Health service if an employee becomes too unwell to cope. Employees off sick through work related stress will need careful, sensitive handling.

If you feel intimidated at work and are unable to tell the bully that their management style is undermining you, tell someone who is in a position to help or intervene.  

If you would like legal advice about bullying or harassment at work, please call Slater and Gordon on freephone 0800 916 9060 or contact us online and we’ll be happy to help you.

Sharon Wardale is an Employment Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester.