At LawCare we often receive calls to our helpline from lawyers who are being bullied at work. Calls about bullying and harassment nearly doubled last year. This is not to say that more bullying is taking place, it’s more likely that there is greater awareness about unacceptable workplace behaviour.
Bullying and harassment are two separate issues
Bullying is a type of abusive behaviour where an individual or a group of people create an intimidating or humiliating work environment. Calls to the LawCare helpline about bullying often cite:
- A difficult boss.
- Being spoken to in a disrespectful way.
- Being sidelined or undermined in front of colleagues.
- Returning to work after illness or a period of leave and feeling that the company wants to dismiss you.
- Being expected to take on work that is beyond your experience or competence and then struggling with it.
- Racial or sexual discrimination.
Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to age, disability, gender
reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation that violates a person’s dignity or has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile,
degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Sadly, bullying behaviour is common in the legal profession. We all know of someone who shouts and slams doors. Someone who says you are not tough enough for the job. Someone who sends threatening emails. Bullying can lead to a range of mental health problems (such as stress, anxiety or depression) and can cause an individual to make mistakes, go on extended sick leave or leave the law entirely, so it is vital to nip it in the bud. A bully can have a huge impact on recruitment and retention of staff, and the reputation of the legal department, and can ultimately lead to intervention from a regulator.
Practical steps for legal departments to take to combat bullying and harassment
Leadership and culture
Creating a supportive and inclusive environment where staff feel that poor behaviour is not tolerated and that complaints are taken seriously and followed up is key. Senior managers should make it clear that the company has a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying behaviour. This message should be regularly communicated and be visible to staff.
A senior member of staff and a member of the HR team should be designated as the main contact point for any member of staff that wants to raise a workplace harassment or bullying concern. Staff need to feel that they can trust the company to address concerns and respond sensitively, quickly and non-judgmentally.
The company should have clear and up-to-date policies on harassment and bullying, how to make a complaint and whistleblowing. All staff should know about them and have access to them. For example, see Practical Law’s Anti-harassment and bullying policy (short form).
All managers should be trained in the company’s relevant policies and procedures, and equality and diversity, and anti-discrimination legislation. Every member of staff should understand their rights as well as their responsibilities to others. To find out what the staff think, an anonymous staff survey should be carried out each year with some questions about any potential experiences of harassment and bullying so the company can identify concerns and address them. Staff who are leaving the company should also be asked why they are leaving as harassment or bullying may be one of the reasons.
Act on complaints
It is not easy to make a complaint or be the subject of a complaint. Complaints should be taken seriously and be dealt with in a timely, non-judgmental and sensitive way with the relevant policies and procedures being followed. Support (such as counselling, mediation or further training) should be provided to both the person making the complaint and the person being complained about.
Legal departments can signpost to LawCare. We provide emotional support on our free, confidential and independent helpline: 0800 279 688. We have listened to many lawyers sharing their experiences of bullying behaviour and harassment during their legal careers. We will listen with empathy and help the individual work out what steps they need to take.
If you are being bullied at work read our factsheet and call us for support.