The problems of bullying and harassment in the workplace have
been recognised in recent years as far more prevalent than most
people appreciate. They have has also been recognised as a
significant source of stress.1
While some people may find it hard to accept that bullying and
harassment are significant issues in the caring professions, a
closer look at the facts quickly reveals that social work is far
from immune to these problems. Such a tendency towards denial is
one that needs to be resisted, as a failure to face up to the
issues will only make matters worse in the long run.
The Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 appears to have made a big
difference to how whistle-blowing is facilitated. For example, one
local authority received numerous complaints under its confidential
reporting procedures on the day its policy was implemented.
Bullying and harassment are therefore issues that need to be taken
seriously by employers if they are to avoid unnecessary stress,
tension and conflict and, of course, the possibility of costly law
However, a recent report from the equal opportunities body the
Wainwright Trust reveals a pattern of complacency and denial, and
even a tendency to sweep under the carpet adverse employment
tribunal decisions.2 The study covered both public and
private sector organisations involved in harassment cases. It was
based on in-depth case studies of 11 organisations plus additional
information from a number of others. It found:
- The person who made the complaint of harassment rarely remained
with the organisation, regardless of whether they had won or lost
- The cases tended to produce resentment and hostility, and
difficulties in restoring morale.
- Long-lasting stress accompanied difficulties in returning to
- Some employers were more interested in avoiding publicity than
in preventing the problems from arising again in future.
- It was not uncommon for organisations losing a case to make
only minimal changes as a result of the ruling.
However, it was not all bad news. There were also examples of
positive steps taken in response to the cases – changes in policy,
introduction of training programmes and so on.
The study focused in particular on the aftermath of cases – how
organisations had “picked up the pieces”. It identified the need
for lessons to be learned and mistakes to be acknowledged;
debriefing sessions to be held (to avoid gossip and rumour);
support to be offered, especially to staff moved as a result of a
complaint; work to be undertaken to rebuild relationships.
The report emphasises that a crucial step for organisations to take
is to establish an environment where problems can be discussed
informally at an early stage, thus avoiding the need, in many
cases, for more formal steps at a later date. In other words,
prevention is better than cure.
It is to be hoped that organisations can learn these important
lessons and make sure that phrases like “staff care” and “dignity
at work” are not just empty rhetoric. Social care is demanding
enough without employers allowing harassment to persist.
Neil Thompson is an independent trainer and consultant with
Avenue Consulting (www.avenueconsulting.co.uk)
and a visiting professor at the University of Liverpool. He is the
author of Tackling Bullying and Harassment in the
Workplace (Pepar Publications).
1 Neil Thompson, Stress
Matters, Pepar Publications, 1999,
2 Professor Jeanne Gregory, Picking Up the
Pieces, Wainwright Trust, 2002. From the Wainwright Trust,
Town Farm House, Mill End, Standon, Ware, Hertfordshire, SG11 1LP;
It costs £25.