According to reports, the Employment Tribunal claim over bullying in the Home Office has settled for a six-figure sum.

Last year’s Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations of bullying by the home secretary Priti Patel and the subsequent settlement of the claim raise various questions about workplace bullying. Is raising a grievance a waste of time? Is “unintentional bullying” an effective defence? Can an employer ignore the findings of an investigation report? What if the alleged bully considers that the allegations are raised in bad faith? Charlie Thompson examines the lessons we can learn from this case in relation to workplace bullying.

The Cabinet Office inquiry into Priti Patel’s behaviour as a minister uncovered evidence of bullying and concluded that the home secretary broke the ministerial code. The foreword to the code, written by the prime minister himself, states that there “must be no bullying and no harassment”.

Stories at the time reported that the outcome of the inquiry sat on the prime minister’s desk for weeks, after which he decided to back the home secretary. His independent adviser on ministerial standards resigned in protest.

A key factor influencing the prime minister’s decision to back the home secretary appears to be that any bullying was “unintentional”. This line was decried by many. In contrast, allies of Patel criticised an obstructive civil service in need of a shake up and also suggested that criticisms of Patel were motivated by racism and misogyny.

A few months later, news broke that Philip Rutnam’s constructive unfair dismissal claim was settled for a six-figure sum.  Whilst many of the key facts of this case will remain private, it is still a fascinating case study.

It is in many ways similar to a familiar scenario: an employee raises a bullying complaint about a senior colleague, and that complaint is investigated through the employer’s grievance procedure. The grievance is upheld, but no further action is taken. There is no suspension or disciplinary procedure against the bully, and at the end of it all, the bully (who is influential and valuable to the organisation) remains in place. The complainant, meanwhile, leaves the organisation and agrees a substantial settlement with the employer.

For an overview of how to approach a bullying complaint, from the perspectives of the employer, complainant, and the alleged bully, please click here.

While expectations over conduct in the workplace continue to change, bullying remains a widespread and thorny issue and has become increasingly complex. Not so long ago, it was the norm for an employer to pay off a complainant, sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and the bully would either remain in their post or also leave with a payoff and a reference. Investigations would often be reverse-engineered to reach a certain outcome or remain unfinished if, for example, one of the parties left before its conclusion.

In recent years, with increasing scrutiny on conduct at work and the use (and abuse) of NDAs, this approach becomes increasingly unviable and unattractive for employers. Indeed, the Solicitors Regulation Authority issued a warning notice in 2018, raising its concerns about the improper use of NDAs. The regulator continues to update the notice, but the thrust remains the same.

In this changing climate, employers should be sophisticated in their approach. Complaints must be investigated promptly and properly.  Importantly, employers must take care to strike a balance between their own interests, the interests of the complainant and the alleged bully.




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