Dealing with bullying in your small business

Oct 13, 2014 | Disputes

We’re looking at grievances this month, and some of the most challenging grievances to deal with are those concerning bullying complaints. So here are some frequently asked questions about dealing with complaints about bullying in a small business.

Do I need a bullying policy?

If you are a very small organisation you may want to avoid having too many policies, and our ethos is very much about not recommending more policies than an employer needs. But a bullying and harassment policy can be incredibly useful as a preventative measure. It can define what bullying and harassment are, and set out clearly for staff what kind of behaviour is unacceptable. It can also give employees who are feeling bullied an informal route to try to resolve the issue, which is clearly better than a grievance.

Someone raised a grievance about bullying and doesn’t want to work with the person during the process…

The complainant may feel unable to work with the person they feel is bullying them while things are being investigated, and if this is the case you should look at any temporary steps you can take to avoid problems. Ordinarily you’d consider perhaps changing a reporting line or moving either the complainant or the alleged bully to another department or room, however in a small business this may simply be impractical. You should be very careful before suspending the alleged bully as this is not a disciplinary procedure (yet), but that could be an option, or alternatively you could consider allowing the complainant to stay at home for a short period while an investigation takes place and a grievance hearing is arranged. In a small business there is unlikely to be any need for the investigation to take very long, so this should only be for a short time.

The complainant has gone off with stress, should I proceed with the grievance?

Absolutely. This is not uncommon, and clearly being bullied at work is very stressful, and if someone has got to the stage of raising a formal grievance, it is likely they feel somewhat at the end of their tether. As with any time someone is signed off with stress, you need to take it seriously and take whatever steps are necessary to resolve any work issues causing or exacerbating the stress. So yes proceed with an investigation and a grievance hearing.

After the grievance, I agree that the complainant is being bullied, what should I do?

This is likely to be a disciplinary matter, so at that point you should invoke your disciplinary procedure, putting forward the allegations of bullying to the alleged bully and giving him or her the opportunity to formally defend him/herself at a hearing, with representation.

After the grievance I don’t agree that it was bullying, what should I do?

You will need to notify the complainant that their grievance is not being upheld, and give them the right to appeal your decision, however obviously the issue does not go away at that point. Even if you don’t agree that the behaviour was bullying, clearly relations are strained and difficult which presents a problem. You could consider mediation, probably from someone external, perhaps your HR consultant if you have one, or an experienced professional mediator. Alternatively, if it feels appropriate, you could sit down with both employees and try to come to a constructive understanding to enable them to work together in future.

The complainant refuses to work with the alleged bully again, what can I do?

This problem can arise regardless of the outcome of the initial grievance, and unless the behaviour was either serious enough to warrant dismissal for gross misconduct, or the individual was already on a final warning and gets dismissed as a result, you will finish a process with two people who need to work together.

If a complainant refuses to work with someone, or remains signed off work with stress at the prospect of returning to work with the alleged bully, you need to ensure you do all you can to protect your position and demonstrate that you’ve taken reasonable steps to address the issue. You need to show that you have:

  • Taken the complaint seriously and investigated properly
  • Followed your grievance procedure carefully
  • Taken disciplinary action if appropriate
  • Made clear to the alleged bully what behaviour you expect in future
  • Considered or offered some kind of mediation, either internal or external
  • Considered redeployment or any other possible steps to reduce contact between the two members of staff

As long as you’ve done those things (and bearing in mind that in a small business, it may not be possible to redeploy or otherwise limit contact), then you’ve done all you can. If the complainant continues to refuse to work with the other employee, ultimately they will need to make a decision as to whether to stay in their job.

If you currently have a grievance in your business and would like some advice, do get in touch.