Lords arguments for and against the Dignity at Work Bill

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Lords’ arguments for and against the Dignity at Work Bill

Baroness Gibson stated in Parliament, on 27 March 2002 when she presented the Dignity at Work Bill, that the aim of the Bill was to counteract bullying at work and to enshrine good practice into law.

“The Bill attempts to be fair to both employees and employers. In an ideal world, it would not be necessary. All employers would be good ones and would already have policies and practices in place which would prevent bullying in the workplace. But this is not an ideal world and employers are not all good ones. This Bill aims to correct those who are not.

Bullying is not a new phenomenon, but it is only in recent years that it has been identified and rightly recognised as a workplace issue. As Angela Ishmael wrote in her excellent book, Harassment, Bullying and Violence at Work, published by the Industrial Society: As employers move towards creating and maintaining a healthy working climate as a corporate priority, bullying and its effects have leaked through the organisations like a crack in a wall”. Bullying is undoubtedly a great problem faced by many British workers. It affects all kinds of workplaces. I have known cases of bullying on the shop floor and in the office; in the voluntary sector, telecommunications, retail, catering, engineering, finance and insurance, the health service, manufacturing, universities and schools and the Prison Service. You name the workplace and bullying can be found. It is a very destructive force.

It is difficult to put a concrete figure on the number of workers bullied, but an NOP poll conducted for a TUC conference on bullying at work suggested that a staggering 5 million working people in the UK had either been bullied in the past or were currently experiencing bullying. Of course bullying does not only have an adverse effect on employees. Employers are also affected by it. Bullying at work costs businesses in employee absenteeism through ill health and lost effectiveness. Professor Cary Cooper of UMIST, an acknowledged expert in the field, has estimated that 40 million working days are lost each year because of bullying. In financial terms, this puts the cost to industry at £3 billion to £4 billion annually. On top of that, it brings to the workplace low morale, poor working relationships and a general depression of spirit. That is hardly conducive to high productivity and quality standards. Bullying blights lives and causes immense and acute suffering and stress.

In the course of the debate, we may be told that there are laws which adequately cover bullying at work. As a former trade union official, I would dispute that emphatically. In the past the UK Parliament has not focused on providing statutory protection against bullying at work. Instead it has concentrated on discrimination. That is fine when it comes to sex or race. But the laws covering sex and race do not adequately cover bullying. It is true that cases can be taken under the Sex Discrimination Act or Race Relations Act. But the great weakness here is that most cases of bullying cannot be shown to amount to sexual or racial harassment and therefore this legislation is not effective in that case.

On the face of it, the health and safety Act can be used by those facing workplace bullying. But again that Act does not specifically mention bullying. It concentrates on the, health, safety and welfare at work of all employees”— a much vaguer concept.

As I know from my years as a health and safety commissioner, the Act is rarely found to be effective for bullying cases. Indeed, because there is no specific law relating to bullying or harassment in the non-sexist or non-racist sense, the only way for an employee to proceed to an employment tribunal because of bullying is to resign from his or her work and bring a claim of breach of contract under the heading of constructive dismissal. That cannot be a just and proper way for an employee to have to proceed in this day and age.

The current laws are not only inadequate for the employee, they also expose employers to a wide range of liabilities without providing the legal tools or guidance to deal with potential bullying problems before they become serious. The existing laws do not help employers to deal with the problem of bullying in the workplace. At best they can provide only a certain financial compensation to an employee who by then has lost his or her health, job or both.

I can best illustrate the absurdity and ambivalence of the law by telling the House of the experiences of two members of my previous union. A young man and a young woman worked in a London teaching hospital. Both received appalling treatment at the hands of their male supervisor by whom they were constantly undermined and their lives made a misery. The young woman’s bullying and denigration also included unwanted sexual advances. At the same time, the supervisor embarked on a campaign to humiliate and reduce the standing of the young man by a series of mean and malevolent acts.

They both went to the same internal appeal. The young woman was held to have been sexually harassed and the young man to have been bullied. Both sustained substantial financial losses as well as suffering emotionally. The young woman was advised that she had a sex discrimination claim which she lodged and eventually settled out of court. The young man had no legal basis for a claim and received no effective remedy for his very similar experiences. He would have had to leave his job had he wished to claim constructive dismissal, as I explained earlier. I believe that that highlights graphically why a new law is needed. If the Bill had been in place, both could have presented bullying cases and both could have received their just rewards.

The Dignity at Work Bill supplements existing employment legislation enabling employers to send a clear message to all their staff that dignity at work must be respected and, if they act quickly and fairly, avoid claims and resolve issues in a way that promotes better workplace relationships and higher morale.”

Baroness Gould of Potternewtonstated in response

As my noble friend said, it covers many situations and can take many forms. It is that aspect upon which I wish to concentrate my remarks. It can cover unfair and excessive criticism, humiliation, public insults, the constantly changing or setting of unrealistic work targets, withholding information, undervaluing efforts and shouting and abusive behaviour. Bullying is a sustained form of psychological abuse, a gradual wearing down process that makes the individuals feel demeaned and inadequate, and hopeless not only within their own work environment but also in their domestic life.”

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton also spoke in favour of the Bill being passed;

“In my submission, the Bill is particularly welcome for two features. The first is its concentration on the terrible problem of bullying, of which my noble friends Lady Gibson and Lady Gould have spoken so convincingly and on which our current law is so manifestly inadequate and confused. Even beyond the focus on bullying, I welcome especially a worker’s right under the Bill to escape unjustified punishment and arbitrary change in his or her working life. I also welcome the right, so clearly set out, not to be victimised for pursuing proceedings for his or her rights to be enforced.

So often today, those whose only way of feeding their families is the sale of their labour power, by hand or by brain, are spoken of as though they were merely items in a labour market, to be manipulated— “

Baroness Barker also spoke in favour of the Bill being passed,

“I want to pick up the question of why we need to have specific legislation on this subject. It has become clear to me in my researches that because of the absence of any specific bullying legislation a great many people dream up or invent reasons to recast what is actually bullying as something else. That is extremely bad for management. To call something by another name and to call it racial discrimination or sexual discrimination, for example, when it is just plain bullying does not help either the business or the culture involved.

A couple of years ago I was on a training course led by a personnel manager. He took us through a number of different case studies in order to put across some points. He described one case study in a large statutory organisation. He came to the crux of the matter and asked, “What happened next? Let me rephrase the question and ask any of you who ever worked for the NHS what happened next”? Three people put their hands up and said, “She went sick”. The lack of specific legislation on bullying and its recasting as something else breed a culture in some organisations which is distinctly unhelpful. There is a powerful case for disentangling bullying from other things.

As your Lordships will know, the 1996 Bill foundered for two main reasons. First, it suffered the fate of many a Private Member’s Bill; that is, death at the hands of the draftsman. The then government spokesman, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, took apart the wording of the Bill with all the relish of a Minister unveiling the fruits of the toil of parliamentary counsel. One of the merits of the Bill before us today is that many of those criticisms, principally those of definition, have been taken into account by the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson. Clause 1 of the present Bill which seeks to define behaviours which would be deemed to constitute bullying is much more tightly defined.

The second reason why Lord Monkswell’s Bill met a swift end in another place was not the ill disposition or the then government, although, undoubtedly, that played a part, but rather the sense that specific legislation would be either an unnecessary burden on business or would fail to tackle the issue effectively. I suspect that there was also another factor although it was never explicitly stated; namely, a fear that the passage of such legislation would in itself lead to a rash of claims. The then government acknowledged that although bullying was a problem of some significance, its adverse effect on productivity, coupled with existing legal protection against explicit discrimination and protection on grounds of health and safety, for example, should suffice. Six years on we have another opportunity to assess the extent to which that strategy was correct and the extent to which there is a need for legislation now.

A number of noble Lords have cited some of the studies and pieces of research which have emerged since 1996. I wish to mention just two. In 1998 Staffordshire University published research in which 40 per cent of those surveyed had witnessed bullying and 18 per cent had experienced for themselves what they termed bullying. That in turn sparked other pieces of research, the most interesting of which found that priests and clergy have been among those who have, experienced that.

The research by Professor Cary Cooper and Helge Hoel of the Manchester School of Management at UMIST was quoted extensively by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould. I want to discuss two further points about it. The first involves the headline conclusions of that research, which was entitled Destructive Conflict and Bullying at Work. It concluded that bullying thrives in a management culture where the loss of emotional control goes unmanaged; that good employers need a policy to deter bullying, which states explicitly that those who report incidents will not be victimised; and that bullying is often a correlation of autocratic, insensitive management styles, which need to be confronted and challenged. Each of those points should be readily understood by any employer who wishes to have a productive and thriving enterprise.

Secondly, the detailed findings of that study tell us a great deal more. The percentages of men and women who had been bullied were roughly equal. Those who were victims were most likely to be aged between 35 and 44, to be white and on full-time permanent contracts. Although managers were most likely to be perpetrators, they, too, could be victims. The significance of that data is that they indicate that bullying is not confined to particular professions or sections of the workplace. It can and does happen to anyone, but it is most likely to occur when other poor management practices are taking place.

That study defined the critical times at which bullying was most likely to occur. It cited factors such as periods of organisational change, the introduction of new IT systems, redundancy and restructuring. All of those are well-known pressure points in any organisation of any size. That valuable information is available now and the Government should be promoting it vigorously in order to enable employers to identify bullying and to take preventive or remedial action.

As I said earlier, the Bill has benefited from previous scrutiny. Clause 1 confers a right to dignity at work and provides a detailed but not exhaustive list of behaviours. That list is helpful and necessary. On 8th April 2001, Richard Wilson of the Institute of Directors wrote an article querying the need for legislation. He said: How would you distinguish between times when people do need to be criticised and encouraged to do better, and those when people are being treated in an unacceptable fashion?”. There is plenty of relevant evidence from the world of education. Furthermore, in my field—social care—working definitions of abuse have been developed over the past 10 years. It is high time that employers caught up with many other fields and adopted the definitions in the Bill, coupled with the growing body of evidence from employment tribunals. In other employment matters, such as race and disability discrimination, employers are increasingly wising up to the fact that bad practice equals bad business. They should swiftly come to the same realisation about bullying.

It is high time that staff who are victims of bullying are given information and support to enable them to seek a way out other than resignation from situations that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, has set out, are often extremely damaging. This measure is commendable and we on these Benches wish the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, well, not just with this good piece of legislation, but with what, in reality, will be a longer campaign to educate employers to eradicate the scourge of bullying at work.

Lord Rotherwick on the other hand argued against the introduction of new legislation to protect workers who are victims of workplace bullying on the following grounds;

“Can the extra burdens on small businesses and the public and voluntary sectors be justified with more legislation? Large private sector employers with adequate resources can and do use cost/benefit analysis to underpin a business case to tackle workplace bullying. But it is questionable whether small businesses have adequate resources to carry out similar risk assessment. This is a complex and costly area for any employer considering the introduction of dignity at work policies. The employer should take into account not only that people who are being bullied have employment rights, but that those being disciplined for bullying also have rights. For instance, if an employer does not strike the correct delicate balance in addressing an employee over alleged bullying, that employee may feel that the employer has been heavy-handed and has tried to dismiss him or her and can make a tribunal claim against the employer.

Can legislation be used surgically to solve a workplace problem without secondary effects? While there is an argument as to whether or not we want this type of legislation, it is worth bearing in mind what Jan Long, the clinical adviser at the Wiltshire and Swindon NHS Trust’s staff support centre, said. He warns that accusations of bullying are already used to cover up poor performance. He goes on to state: Once accused managers find themselves in an agonising situation where it is almost impossible to defend themselves. The knock on effect is that managers are finding it increasingly difficult to discipline staff. Sadly, this is especially true when dealing with sensitive situations—such as with members of minority groups”. Another example is that of Mr Richard of the Institute of Directors who claims that any legislation is fraught with difficulties. He asks: How would you distinguish between times when people need to be criticised and encouraged to do better, and those when people are being treated in an unacceptable fashion?”

Reading Lord Rotherwick’s comments, I cannot help but think he feels that the legislation to protect people against racial and sexual discrimination is not appropriate because of difficulties he perceives employers face when trying to discipline employees or address underperformance. When looking at evidence from the victims of bullying, procedures have been flagrantly flouted and the victim has not been given a fair hearing.

For example in my case that I referred to in one of the first blogs; I was called into a senior Director’s office who was employed by  large public sector organisation. I was not told the purpose of the meeting and I was told to be bring a line manager who had control over my career. At the meeting I was told that another senior Director was considering taking legal action against me because of a letter I had written. No letter was at the meeting, the Director who was supposed to be considering legal action was also not at the meeting. When I asked what specifically I had written, he was unable to give any answer. Because of his position, my line manager believed that I had done something illegal, although with no idea of what. Of course I hadn’t done anything. I had simply disagreed with plans the senior Director had regarding my ‘department’ and I had provided very good reason based on solid objective data analysis. In other words, he wanted to get rid of me for doing my job well. He succeeded after 25 years in a career I loved. The grievance I raised was a farce as there was no transparency and evidence I provided was ignored. If the Senior Director had genuine reason to make such a claim, he would have informed me of the purpose of the meeting beforehand. He would have had the letter at the meeting that we could have discussed and the senior Director who was supposedly considering legal action would have been at the meeting too. If there had been transparency in terms of correct procedures being followed  there would be no reason for me to claim bullying.

With regard to underperformance, if there was clear evidence that underperformance existed and correct procedures were followed, a claimant who was trying to cite bullying would not be successful at a tribunal.

I therefore believe that Lord Rotherwick’s argument does not stand up to evidence.

What do you think? Please comment with your views and experiences.


Support the campaign to introduce legislation to protect workers against workplace bullying in the UK



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