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Not just a difficult manager: unfair dismissal and workplace bullying

As further news comes to light in relation to allegations concerning Priti Patel, our employment department looks at the potential exposure employers face if their managers are abusive towards or humiliate their staff.

One of the common themes of the allegations made against Ms. Patel is that she humiliated staff in front of others.  It is also alleged that she shouted and swore at employees and belittled them.  Such behaviour by some managers is not uncommon and many employees will have first-hand experience of similar behaviour.  Employment Tribunals commonly deal with claims for unfair constructive dismissal arising out of allegations that are not dissimilar to the ones made against Ms. Patel.

Historic cases

One of the leading cases in this area is that of Hilton Hotels Limited v. Protopapa.  In this 1990 case, Miss Protopapa resigned from her job as a telephone supervisor after being severely reprimanded by her immediate superior in front of her co-workers.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld a finding of unfair dismissal that such conduct amounted to a serious breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence that should exist in any employment contract.  It was also held that an employer was liable for the acts of the supervisor, even though the supervisor did not have the authority to dismiss Miss Protopapa. 

As recently as the 18th February 2020, the Employment Tribunal Service published a decision of the Scottish Employment Tribunal in the case of Maclean v. Menzies Distribution Limited.  In this case, Mr. Maclean had been found to have been unfairly constructively dismissed when he discovered, on holiday, that a “humiliating email” had been sent by his manager which was highly critical of him.  This email had been sent to 15 other people, some of whom were Mr. Maclean’s subordinates.  The Tribunal placed great emphasis on the fact that Mr. Maclean had been humiliated before his colleagues. 

Is it not just a management style?

Sometimes an employer may argue that a forceful management style, that includes the type of behaviour that Ms. Patel is alleged to have exhibited, may be justified as it is inherent in the type of industry/business that certain employees operate in.  There is a hint of this in Boris Johnson’s recent defence of Ms. Patel – along the lines of “she gets the job done”.  However, Employment Tribunals will rarely, if ever, accept that employees should be exposed to an intolerable working environment.  In the case of Horkulak v. Canter Fitzgerald International, the Court of Appeal upheld a finding of unfair constructive dismissal brought by a senior Managing Director.  Mr. Horkulak was exposed to abusive behaviour and bad language from his boss on a frequent basis.  His employers argued that such forceful management behaviour should be seen in the context of a high-pressure environment in which material rewards were great and bad language was commonplace.  The Court refused to accept that frequent use of foul and abusive language could lessen its effect or remove its power to offend.  Neither was it relevant that the employee in question was paid a substantial salary.

Managers who regularly “dress down” their employees in public or use abusive language are likely to expose their employers to claims for unfair constructive dismissal and claims for personal injury for stress-related conditions.  Compensation in such claims could be very substantial indeed, particularly in respect of those employees on substantial salaries.

For more information or if you have experienced such behaviour from an employer/manager, get in touch with Linder Myers Solicitors today on 0800 042 0700 or email us on enquiries@lindermyers.co.uk

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