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Experts warn of damage if bullying is not dealt with

I run a small recruitment business with seven employees, most of whom are women. Over the past few months I sense a bit of bullying has begun but I can't really prove it. However, it is important that there is a positive atmosphere in the office for the team to perform well. How can I address the issue without putting the victim on the spot?

Paras Gorasia, employment barrister at Kings Chambers, says:

This is a difficult situation for any employer and you are doing the right thing in seeking to take steps to stop any issue before it develops into something more serious.

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Although I understand your reluctance to put the victim on the spot, there are ways in which you as the employer can deal with this informally. The approach you take will depend on the circumstances of the bullying and the relationship between you and the employee who you feel is being affected.

If you have a good relationship with the employee, start with an informal chat to ascertain how they are getting on, without directly raising the issue of bullying. It will give you a sense for whether there is, in fact, a potential problem.

You could also ask some of their colleagues on a confidential basis whether they have seen any behaviour that could constitute bullying, without naming the victim, to see if they have observed any unacceptable behaviour.

If there is an issue, you need to have a discussion with whoever is responsible to address the matter and hopefully end it. At this stage you should also let the victim know that unacceptable behaviour has come to your attention and that you are dealing with it. Openly taking an uncompromising stance on bullying will go a long way to stopping it and ensuring the working atmosphere remains harmonious.

If bullying and harassment matters are left unchecked, they can easily escalate to a stage where the victim resigns and brings a claim for constructive dismissal. By tackling it at the earliest opportunity, you can do your bit to avoid the associated financial and reputational cost to the business of such a claim.

Joanna Dodd, employment associate at Clarion Solicitors, says:

It's great news that you are engaged with your staff and sensitive to workplace issues such as this. You are right to want to nip this in the bud and there are a couple of discreet ways to go about it.

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If you have a staff handbook, it could be effective to look at some "refresher" training on your equality, bullying and harassment, grievance and disciplinary policies – reminding staff of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable workplace behaviour. Hopefully, it would encourage your employees to reflect on their behaviour and stop any bullying.

Training on your existing workplace policies would also subtly let the suspected victim know that support is available if they wanted to make a formal complaint about their colleagues. If you do receive such a grievance, make sure you investigate it and follow through with appropriate disciplinary action for the culprits according to your workplace policies.

If you haven't already got a disciplinary and grievance policy in place, now would be a perfect time to implement it along with other policies that could prove valuable. When introducing new policies it is important to train staff on what they mean to them. The same goes for all new starters.

Organizing informal one-to-one meetings with employees on a regular basis could help identify issues at an early stage and deal with them before they become formal grievances. This can be a useful forum for discussing performance and conduct issues while offering staff a chance to ask for help and support to ensure they remain happy at work.

If still in doubt, you should seek advice from a specialist employment law solicitor.

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