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Bullying Lowered productivity.  Industrial relations problems.  Litigation.

These are among the potential impacts for a company if it fails to deal adequately with an allegation of bullying.  So this is no trivial matter and companies need to be adequately prepared in order to be able to take such complaints seriously.

Obviously prevention is better than cure and companies can reduce the risk of bullying being alleged.  However, if there is a complaint, how should the company respond?  What does the company need to do to take the complaint seriously?    That is what we want to discuss in this article.

In making a complaint an employee is drawing attention to themselves.  They are inviting potential ridicule.  Also, they may feel they are risking their employment by rocking the boat.  So employers need to understand that, in general, employees do not make such complaints lightly.

Correspondingly, it is inadequate for companies to be dismissive of the complaint.  It is inadequate to presume and/or say that the employee is making a mountain out of a molehill.  It is inadequate to fail to consider that the alleged perpetrator may be abusing a position of authority.

As a starting point employers should be very clear as to what bullying in the workplace actually is.  Citizens Information defines it as: “repeated inappropriate behaviour that undermines your right to dignity at work”.  The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) expands this slightly – defining bullying in the workplace as “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual‘s right to dignity at work.”

The Workplace Relations Commission has also published its own code of practice on Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace for employers and employees and addresses the prevention and resolution of bullying at work. It states that the purpose of this Code of Practice is for the guidance of employers, employees and their representatives and also effective procedures for addressing allegations of workplace bullying. The code sets out an informal and formal procedure.

Both an informal and formal procedure should be defined by the employer – and should be captured in a bullying policy that the complaining employee has access to.  If the company has not defined these processes they will be unable to deal adequately with the complaint.

It is the employee’s choice as to which of the two processes to use.   As the name suggests, the goal of the informal process is to resolve the situation as informally as possible.  If this succeeds, it minimises the conflict and stress involved.   The informal process normally involves the employee dealing directly with the alleged perpetrator with the aim of resolving the situation promptly and in a low-key fashion.

If the employee is unhappy with the outcome of the informal process, or if the employee wishes to bypass the informal process entirely, then the formal process is followed.  With the formal process the complainant makes the complaint in writing.  The complaint should be made to their immediate supervisor or to someone else in a management role.    One reason for not making the complaint to an immediate supervisor would be if that supervisor is the alleged perpetrator.    At this stage the company should not draw any conclusions.  Both parties deserve to be treated fairly.  Correspondingly, the company should ensure that the alleged perpetrator is given a copy of the complainant’s statement – and assured that they will be given the right of reply.

The company should then have an impartial member of management carry out an initial examination – ideally one that can resolve the situation through mediation or informally.  If this is unsuccessful, a more formal investigation is required.  The investigator(s) can be management or an outside party.  That outside party and the terms of reference need to be agreed by both complainant and alleged perpetrator.  The codes of practice mentioned earlier provide further detail on how such investigations should be carried out.

Ultimately, management will decide whether or not to uphold the complaint.  If the complaint is upheld or if the complaint is found to have been maliciously made then the issue becomes a disciplinary matter.

The responsibilities for employers are complex.  To get expert guidance on bullying in the workplace call Mary Cullen or Liam Barton on 056 770 1060 or email

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Bullying in the workplace webinar

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Watch our recent webinar for hints and tips on how to run a workplace investigation.

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