The campaign to have workplace bullying recognised in law
Bullying is a common concern within the legal community so we asked Nicki Eyre, Managing Director of Conduct Change Ltd, to share her experiences of being bullied in the workplace and why she is now leading the Stop Hurt at Work campaign and contributing to the Bullying and Respect at Work Bill.
“I feel bullied”. I remember using those words to this day, and the surge of emotion attached to them. I was just three months into a new, very senior role at the time, and my boss had just threatened my job as a result of something that his (quite obviously favourite) direct report had said to him about me.
It’s interesting that workplace bullying is seen as a pattern of behaviours rather than a one off event, because I had never been bullied previously and it was not a word that I used regularly, but it was the only word that summed up the impact of that behaviour for me at the time.
My reaction following this event was to deny that I could be bullied. I was strong, capable, and successful; it couldn’t happen to me. I certainly didn’t decide to look at policies and start recording every interaction to identify further examples. I just worked incredibly hard to prove my boss wrong about me.
What I didn’t realise at the time was the way in which that one incident had broken all possibility of trust in our relationship. My actions were not about proving myself, but about survival. Slowly, I adopted behaviours that went against my own values in order to be accepted.
Despite my seniority, I didn’t feel heard, and was often excluded from decisions made about my area of responsibility. It was subtle and often behind closed doors. The turning point was the outburst where I was humiliated in front of my senior management team and other directors.
It was only at this point that I started considering what this behaviour meant and seeking support in a trusted colleague. I started looking at the policies and procedures. I followed them in blind faith, believing that they were there to support me in this situation.
Speak to them directly, they suggest
It took enormous courage to speak to my boss directly about their behaviour. There was an improvement for about three weeks, and then everything went downhill. I made the decision to put in a formal complaint at that point.
Everyone tells you to record all the details, don’t they? That’s hard to do when you are not really aware of what is happening at first – or you’re in denial, as I was. Putting together a formal complaint meant revisiting every incident in my mind and searching endlessly through emails and notes for the evidence needed, completely unaware that each time I did this, it reinforced the stress, distress and trauma. This continued at each stage throughout the process – writing the complaint; meeting with the investigator; reading the outcome report; the appeal, and every moment in between. Ultimately, I was too ill to go to tribunal and left on a settlement agreement – and yes, it included an NDA.
Research by Speak Out Revolution shows that “an individual’s situation is five times more likely to get worse than it is to improve after formally reporting their workplace bullying”
The impact of the bullying manifested in many different ways; psychological, physical, cognitive, social and behavioural. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, tearfulness, fearfulness, sense of isolation, hypervigilance, obsessive thinking, rumination and suicidal ideation. Nausea, digestive complaints, headaches, backache and overwhelming fatigue. Confusion, disbelief, insecurity and desperation. Irritability and angry outbursts. Inability to think clearly, make decisions, concentrate or focus. Demotivated, unproductive, and more prone to mistakes.
I lost my way. I lost my team. I lost myself.
Ultimately, I was left with shattered self-confidence and self-esteem, low self-image, loss of self-worth and strong feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, and guilt. There was also an overwhelming sense of anger and need for justice.
I was unable to work again for a long time afterwards, and found myself applying for low paid, part time opportunities as I had no belief in myself or my own abilities. Many people like myself who end up leaving work never return to full-time paid employment again. Working for myself felt like the safest option, but it still took more than two years to start slowly down that route, and over six years to truly regain my confidence.
A large part of my recovery turned out to be understanding what had happened to me, starting with my health and why my behaviours had changed so much. That led to an exploration of the processes and policies, and their fundamental flaws for this type of situation. They are adversarial and not fit for purpose. Further still, I discovered that bullying was not recognised in UK legislation, although it was in other parts of the world.
That’s why, in 2019, I decided that I would devote my career to helping businesses change from a reactive to a proactive culture to prevent bullying.
Stop Hurt at Work
When setting up my business, I also decided to include a social purpose: education, awareness raising and campaigning about workplace bullying. I gathered together an extraordinary group of experts to form an Advisory Board, from which we launched the “Stop Hurt at Work” campaign to have workplace bullying recognised in law. We wanted to bring a solution forward rather than just shout about the problem, so we sought advice from the Employment Lawyers’ Association, as well as working with specialist lawyers in psychiatric injury and stress at work, to identify the gaps in the law and draft a proposal.
In its simplest terms, we wanted a statutory definition of workplace bullying, and for anyone who was bullied to be able to bring a claim from day one of work without having to leave their employment, and to be able to claim for injury to feeling in an Employment Tribunal.
Bullying and Respect at Work Bill
Stop Hurt at Work's proposal was further extended and presented in the House of Commons by Rachael Maskell MP on 11 July 2023 as the Bullying and Respect at Work Bill, which received cross party support.
“A Bill to provide for a statutory definition of bullying at work; to make provision relating to bullying at work, including to enable claims relating to workplace bullying to be considered by an employment tribunal; to provide for a Respect at Work Code to set minimum standards for positive and respectful work environments; to give powers to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate workplaces and organisations where there is evidence of a culture of, or multiple incidents of, bullying and to take enforcement action; and for connected purposes.”
It’s taken more than 4 years to reach this point, and there is still a long way to go. I’m not the only person who has been bullied that wants to see change. My hope is that this Bill will drive the changes needed and give those who are reeling from their experience just a tiny piece of hope for a better future.
Nicki Eyre, Founder and Director of Conduct Change, recognises the scale of the bullying problem at both an organisational and individual level and is able to bring her wealth of experience to her role as a consultant, coach, speaker and trainer.
She founded Conduct Change as a result of her passion for working with individuals and businesses to prevent and resolve workplace bullying, with a mission to end workplace bullying through the development of meaningful prevention activities for organisations to ensure that everyone feels heard, valued and respected in the workplace.
She also leads the work of the Stop Hurt at Work campaign as they research and campaign for the implementation of effective routes to redress for individuals, both in terms of approach and legislation, as well as supporting individuals to move on when they are struggling emotionally.