Employment law: indignity at work

Practices can be held vicariously liable for bullying and harassment of employees at work. 

  • Date: 01 December 2009

DR HENRY is a stickler for accuracy and runs a tight ship. He expects the staff in his practice to put in that extra bit of effort. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He gives 110 per cent and expects his staff to do likewise.

Mary works in Dr Henry’s practice as a receptionist. She finds his micro-management style oppressive, his personal manner demeaning and his attitude to non-medical staff dismissive and patronising. The practice manager Grace has struggled for years to protect her staff from Dr Henry’s excesses but has now been handed a formal grievance from Mary complaining about Dr Henry criticising her in front of other staff for a mistake she made with an appointment for a patient. Mary says that she made the appointment in good faith but Dr Henry accused her of not checking his diary before making the appointment. According to him, she would then have discovered that he was away from the practice that afternoon.

Whether Dr Henry’s behaviour is bullying or merely ‘firm management’ is a moot point for this practice. Certainly, our experience at Law At Work is that many employees tolerate eccentric, discriminatory and potentially intimidating behaviour until they are pushed over the edge or have an ulterior motive for dragging the behaviour into the open.

The problem for practices is that they are potentially vicariously liable for the unlawful behaviour of staff/partners. Practices may find themselves the object of discrimination claims (for harassment), constructive dismissal claims (for bullying – not related to a personal characteristic of the victim) or personal injury claims (for physical or mental injury resulting from such delinquent behaviour). The practicemay be cited, alongside the harasser/bully, as responsible for their unlawful actions. Recent cases have also involved employers paying criminal damages to victims of bullying in their employment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – the anti-stalking legislation.

These are serious matters from a legal, PR and expense point of view. Practice managers will need to develop policies and guidance for staff and partners explaining what is meant by bullying and harassment and why it is prohibited in the practice. Briefings for staff may be required to make it clear that bullying and harassment is unacceptable. Staff should be directed to raise any concerns they may have about such incidents through the practice’s grievance procedure or, if necessary, in confidence to a partner. Staff also need to be told that bullying and harassment may constitute gross misconduct and could result in dismissal of the perpetrator.

The key to success here is demonstrating to the court (if necessary) that action was taken to prevent the delinquent behaviour from happening - rather than reacting when it was complained about. So waiting for someone to complain is not a risk-free option for employers.


  • Develop or review a Dignity at Work policy – outlining what constitutes bullying and harassment, explaining that such behaviour is prohibited and stating what avenues of complaint are open to victims.
  • Amend any staff handbook or disciplinary policy to ensure that bullying and harassment are shown as examples of gross misconduct.
  • Arrange a briefing to tell staff and partners about the new policy and clarify any questions they may have about the issues. Be aware that delinquent behaviour may have become the norm in certain workplaces. This may mean that a ‘quiet word’ may be required with the main perpetrators. They need to be warned that, although no one may have complained yet, they must become aware that some people may be offended or scared by their behaviour and that it is contrary to the practice Dignity at Work policy. If the perpetrator is a partner, certain diplomacy skills may be required.

Good luck!

Ian Watson, Law At Work

Law At Work is MDDUS preferred supplier of employment law and health and safety services.


This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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Practice Manager is published twice yearly and distributed to MDDUS practice managers and others with management responsibility in dental and medical surgeries. It features articles on employment law, health and safety, risk as well as profiles of practices across the UK. Browse our current and back issues below.
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