On 21 April 2023 Dominic Raab resigned from his position as the Secretary of State for Justice faced with allegations of bullying in the workplace. The Guardian reported that the inquiry that took place found civil servants feeling sick, reduced to tears and in one case feeling suicidal due to the alleged behaviour of the Minister. His team’s response to the initial investigation was to say that he “makes no apologies” for having high standards. “He works hard and expects a lot from his team as well as himself.”
A similar argument, regarding a robust management style, was utilised in the case of Mr G Mobbs v Weetabix Ltd. In this case the Claimant was a Health and Safety and Environmental Manager for Weetabix from 2012 until he left in 2020. The Claimant stated that one of his reasons for leaving his position was the “inappropriate, bullying and harassing behaviour” from Mr Petre his line manager.
He provided examples of this behaviour which included one occasion when the Claimant requested a meeting be rescheduled and was told not to “inconvenience” his manager with his “poor organisational skills” and was told to “sort himself out”. Mr Petre called a colleague “useless” and “a f***ing idiot”. Referring to another colleague he said ‘what the f*** is he playing at sending that document out, what an idiot’.
The Claimant raised a formal grievance regarding this behaviour. On appeal the grievance was not upheld. The Claimant was signed off work from November 2019 to June 2020 when he resigned for anxiety amongst other things. He claimed that the grievance process contributed to this.
The Claimant took this case to a tribunal alleging constructive unfair dismissal. This is when an employee feels compelled to resign based on a fundamental breach of their contract by the employer. The Tribunal agreed that the line manager’s behaviour was serious enough to mean that the implied term of trust and confidence had been breached and the claim was successful.
Weetabix argued that Mr Petre’s style of management included using language that had the purpose to “humiliate” employees in order to “get the best out of people”. He acknowledged that his language was occasionally “inflammatory and unhelpful”, but it was his job to publicly “hold people to account” and would not “shy away from” doing so. The tribunal did not find that this was a reasonable justification for the behaviour and the language used.
A feature of the judgment was that Weetabix did have a Dignity at Work policy defining bullying and harassment and detailing how complaints should be made. This policy was not referred to in the grievance process which also highlights the fact that policies are only useful if they are applied and if all staff are aware of their contents. This shows the importance of training on grievance procedures as well as disciplinaries. All managers need to have an awareness of how to handle these situations when they arise.
The lesson here for employers is that there is a line between a strict management style and bullying. But where is that line drawn? The difficulty is that there is no fixed legal definition of bullying, but we would suggest that any abuse or misuse of power in ways that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient should be investigated thoroughly.
If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Natalia Milne.