How to handle bullying allegations

This article was first published in the Winter 2020/21 issue of Third Sector


A staff member raising an allegation of bullying is alarming for any manager. Not only can the process be painful, protracted and contested, but such claims can have a seriously negative effect on the teams and individuals involved, particularly if any party feels their point of view has been ignored or neglected. 

It is also a bigger problem than many imagine. As well as high-profile stories such as the recent investigation into Home Secretary Priti Patel, research published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development last year showed that 15 per cent of employees – more than one in seven polled – said they had experienced bullying over the past three years. 

And sadly, for all the positive work done for people and communities by charity employees, the voluntary sector is no stranger to such situations.

There has been a steady stream of high-profile examples in recent years where bullying allegations have given way to serious fallout in some of the largest UK charities. 

Notable cases include Unicef UK, whose former chair, Douglas Alexander, was cleared of bullying allegations following an independent review at the beginning of the year, and the Alzheimer’s Society, where claims made against its former chief executive, Jeremy Hughes, resulted in him having an offer to take up the same role at Samaritans withdrawn. 

In 2007, Rachael Maskell, then the not-for-profit officer at the union Unite, but now the shadow charities minister, said bullying was the most prevalent issue she dealt with in charities. 

The CIPD’s research last year highlighted that employers perceived a lack of expertise in dealing with bullying claims among their managers.

Slightly more than one-third of organisations said one of the biggest barriers to effective conflict management was that managers lacked the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour. Just four in 10 line managers said they had received people management training. 

So, where should managers start when they are alerted to a claim of bullying, and what process should they follow? 

Rachel Suff, policy adviser at the CIPD, says charities should follow the code of practice drawn up by the reconciliation service Acas when investigating such allegations. 

“This means establishing if there’s a case to answer, ensuring everyone is treated fairly and gathering evidence from all sides,” she says. 

“It’s very important to follow a fair procedure, and so any individual responsible for carrying out an investigation should be trained, and shouldn’t be involved in the case. 

“They should plan ahead and take into account factors such as sources of evidence to collect, time frames, and relevant policies to follow and how confidentiality applies,” says Suff – adding that clear communication of each step with all the individuals involved in the case is important.  

Investigations should be completed as quickly as possible, but this needs to be balanced against the need to be fair and thorough. 

“The timeframe will also depend on the complexity of the case and it could take several weeks to gather the evidence in a more complicated investigation,” Suff warns. 

“The employer and investigator should set a reasonable timescale and those involved should be kept informed.

Christine Pratt, founder of the charity the National Bullying Helpline, agrees the management approach to bullying should be to follow the Acas code of practice, but says that beforehand, employers should ensure that the procedures to be followed are well documented and clearly communicated to staff. 

Above all, when an allegation is raised, an employer needs to act quickly and follow the recommended process. “Where there is a decline in performance or health, something is clearly very wrong,” she says.

The burden of proof

Many cases, however, tend not to be clear-cut, meaning that sensitive judgments will need to be made by the people assessing the case. 

This will include cases in which someone is claiming to have experienced bullying behaviour, but there does not appear to be solid evidence to back this up. 

But is it the case that if an individual feels like they are being bullied, they are?

Pratt says the burden of proving a bullying allegation does not lie with the person raising the complaint, regardless of their status within or relationship with the charity. 

“Employees and volunteers alike often ask whether they personally have to ‘prove that it is bullying’ when they submit their grievance,” she says. “In fact, the burden of proof, and entire responsibility in respect of ascertaining the facts, rests solely with the organisation.”

Richard Peachey, head of business development at the workplace relationship consultancy CMP Solutions, says the burden of proof in bullying cases is the same as in a civil court case. 

“The burden of proof should be ‘on the balance of probability’,” he says. “This means a likelihood of more than 51 per cent that the thing happened, with that 51 per cent being based on the evidence, not bias or gut feeling.”

And Suff cautions that sometimes even the most thorough investigation will not find evidence of the alleged behaviour. 

“This could mean no bullying took place, but it can also be hard to prove if the behaviour was subtle or there were no witnesses or other evidence,” she says. 

“The perceptions of the person on the receiving end do count, and the employer needs to take on board these perceptions. 

“It is possible that in some cases the alleged perpetrator isn’t aware that their behaviour could constitute bullying, or of the impact their behaviour is having; in these cases an informal conversation can help to resolve the issue. 

“Even if there wasn’t clear evidence of bullying and the formal complaint is not pursued, further action such as counselling or mediation or training could be recommended.”

Peachey also recommends that restorative justice and workplace mediation can be helpful in moving forward from situations where it is not entirely clear where any fault might lie. 

“A lived experience is reality for that individual, and just because they do not have evidence that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or hurt,” he says. 

Toxic workplaces

What if the bullying situation runs deeper than just one or two individuals, and managers find themselves confronted with a potentially toxic wider workplace? 

Peachey says it is important that leaders should model the sort of behaviour they expect from their teams. 

“Be the role model, not a bystander, and challenge inappropriate behaviour,” he says. 

“It’s not about zero tolerance – it’s about doing the right thing when things do not go as they should.”

Suff also says leaders should visibly lead on dignity and respect, and model the positive values of the organisation, because they have a defining influence on the workplace culture. 

“They should foster a ‘speak up’ culture with a clear complaints procedure that’s well-publicised, so staff know how to raise concerns,” she says. “Managers also need to understand the behaviours that will help them to manage conflict in the most effective way: we need managers who are open, collaborative and compassionate.”

She says good managers will tackle conflict head-on rather than avoid it, and nip any unhealthy behaviour in the bud. 

“It’s up to senior leaders and HR teams to ensure that managers are part of the solution in fostering inclusive workplaces.”

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