Bullying in the legal workplace
At LawCare we often receive calls to our helpline from lawyers who are being bullied at work. In fact 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, micro-management or being sidelined or undermined in front of colleagues, returning to work after illness or a period of leave and feeling that the firm want to get rid of you, being expected to take on work that is beyond your experience or competence and then struggling with it, and racial or sexual discrimination.
Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation which 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 law firms. 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, 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 firm, and can lead to intervention from a regulator.
There are practical steps firms can take:
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 partners and managers should make it clear that the firm has a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying behaviour. This message should be regularly communicated and 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 firm to address concerns and respond sensitively, quickly and non-judgmentally.
The firm should have clear and updated policies on harassment and bullying, how to make a complaint and whistleblowing. All staff should know about them and have access to them.
All managers should be trained in the firm’s relevant policies and procedures, equality and diversity and anti-discrimination legislation. Every member of staff should understand their rights as well as their responsibilities to others. In order 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 firm can identify concerns and address them. Staff who are leaving the firm should also be asked why they are leaving, as this may signpost to harassment or bullying as a reason.
Act on complaints
It is not easy to make a complaint or be the subject of a complaint. Firms should take complaints seriously and deal with them in a timely, non-judgmental and sensitive way making sure the firm’s relevant policies and procedures are followed. Support, such as counselling, mediation or further training, should also be provided to those involved—both to the person making the complaint and the person being complained about.
Firms 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.
Elizabeth Rimmer, LawCare
0800 279 6888 Monday – Friday 9am–5.30pm*
Tuesday & Wednesday 1-5.30pm
*If you urgently need to speak to someone outside of our helpline/webchat hours call the Samaritans on 116 123.