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Sticks and stones

24 April 2015

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Having the correct procedures in place to deal with bullying in the workplace is vital to make sure the issue is properly tackled

According to Unison, a third of the 6,000 employees surveyed from across the UK in 2011 had been victims of bullying.[1] Does this hold true for general practice? Consider the following:

  • The new, young and enthusiastic receptionist is putting up with snide comments, whispering just out of earshot, and general unhelpfulness. Those responsible – her colleagues – are middle aged, been in the practice forever and resistant to anything new.
  • Two admin staff fall out at a weekend barbeque. Their quarrel is brought into the workplace and they take every opportunity to complain about the other’s standard of work. Eventually, one takes out a bullying grievance against the other and this is immediately followed up with a counter grievance.  
  • A practice manager who prides herself on her ‘firm management’ – this includes, constant criticism, favouring some staff and picking on others. But never in front of the  GPs.
  • Dr Angry. No favouritism here, everyone gets a strip torn off them – regularly.

Do any of these scenarios strike a cord? Unfortunately, they are all real life examples. Should we regard these as just ‘life in general practice’, explained away by ‘there is one in every practice’? The answer is – absolutely not. But while no-one would condone bullying, tackling it can be very difficult. As these examples highlight, it can be embedded in the culture of the practice, it is not restricted to one staff group, any number of people can be involved; there are many forms, e.g. face-to-face, written and it can be very apparent or subtle and insidious.

Bullying and harassment
So what can be done to prevent bullying and harassment from happening in your practice?
Let’s start by defining what is meant by these terms.

  • Bullying tends to be direct and confrontational – workplace violence.
  • Harassment is likely to be continuous passive-aggressive abuse – workplace intimidation.[2]

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is unlawful if it is related to age, sex, disability, gender (including gender reassignment), marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Sexual harassment is specifically outlawed by the Act. A complaint of harassment, but not bullying, can be made to an employment tribunal. However, it’s worth noting that if your practice does not respond to a complaint of bullying and the employee resigns as a direct consequence of this, then he/she can claim constructive dismissal. This is also likely to be a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 as you have a duty to protect employees’ health, safety and welfare at work.[3] In short, the practice manager has both a legal and moral duty to ensure there is no workplace bullying or harassment in the practice.

Policies, procedures and training
To avoid falling foul of the law, and as best practice, there should be explicit anti-bullying and harassment policies in place. Ensure that these documents define what is regarded as bullying behaviour, behaviours that are unlawful, how the practice would respond to a complaint and the disciplinary sanctions that would be taken if the complaint is upheld.  Importantly, the practice must convey that it would be supportive of anyone raising such a complaint under the practice’s grievance procedure and clearly outline the steps in this process. Consider getting the team involved, e.g. ask staff to help to write, or review, the policies. The practice team should continue to review these policies regularly.  

Training sessions for the whole team would be an excellent way to reinforce the policies and the practice’s zero tolerance stance. As the manager, you might want to think about your training needs too. Perceptions of what is strong management and what is bullying can be a thin line and so it is essential that you demonstrate professional and fair behaviour at all times. Courses in leadership, management styles, conflict management and resolution could help to avoid pitfalls and allow you to manage difficult situations with confidence.  

Getting to the root of the problem
Should you receive a bullying and harassment complaint, this must be taken seriously and the practice’s grievance procedure adhered to. It would be worth exploring an informal route first (this too could be detailed in the grievance procedure), e.g. could the employee talk directly to the perpetrator, would mediation – using an objective third person to facilitate a discussion between the two parties – help? Suggest that the employee keeps a written account of what is happening, with dates, times and any witnesses. Alternatively, the employee could talk to a trade union representative or an organisation such as ACAS – the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

It is vital that the member of staff knows that he/she will be dealt with fairly, sensitively and in a confidential manner. He/she may be worried about future repercussions (witnesses may also be concerned about this). Maintaining confidentiality in a small organisation will not be easy – but is crucial. Be extra careful to lock notes away, close documents on the PC, etc.

If the complaint progresses to a formal stage, investigate this as quickly and objectively as possible. Carefully consider all of the circumstances before reaching any decisions. ACAS suggests using: “Could what has taken place be reasonably considered to have caused offence?” as a benchmark for assessing behaviour. Consider whether it is possible that the people involved do not realise that their behaviour has been offensive.

You do not need me to tell you that employment relations are rarely straightforward. Be prepared for varying recollections of events, people’s perceptions and so on. Bullies can, and will, present themselves as victims too and will counter allegations with claims of also being bullied (as per the second scenario at the start of this article). Bear in mind though, if these claims are later found to be untrue, this could be a separate disciplinary matter.

If you conclude that there has been bullying and harassment you need to give a clear message that reinforces what you have stated in your policy, i.e. do what you said you would do! However unpleasant, you must follow through on this – anything short of this tells bullies, and their victims, that they can carry on behaving in this way. In addition, you might find yourself having to explain this to an employment tribunal.

Make sure that you provide the complainant with protection from any backlash, e.g. different shift patterns, greater management presence in reception. It may be helpful to offer the person some counselling sessions – at the practice’s expense.

Creating a harmonious workforce
Re-building the practice’s reputation and team morale following a distressing bullying and harassment experience can be a huge task. The practice manager may well have to address a lack of trust and respect in management and other members of the team, a down turn in performance, people taking time off sick and/or leaving the practice. Potentially, there could be financial consequences – legal costs, compensation payments and the opportunity costs of having had to focus your attention on the bullying rather than the day job. Strong leadership, staff training, team involvement in building and maintaining a culture that consistently demonstrates it will not stand for bullying and harassment are imperative. But this will not happen overnight.

Please, if you know you have bullies, take steps to sort this now. If you don’t have bullies, count yourself very lucky but please don’t be complacent – minimise the risks and remain vigilant. Let’s all work on stamping out bullying and harassment in general practice. l

Anne Crandles is a freelance practice management consultant in Edinburgh.

1.    Unison. Unison bullying survey reveals real impact of cuts. www.unison-scotland. news/2011/mayjune/1606.htm (accessed 14 April
2.     Definitions of Bullying and Harassment. (accessed 31 March 2015).
3.     ACAS. Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers. 2014… (accessed 31 March 2015).