Five years after it was first introduced the Dignity at Work Bill has again been put to the House of Lords (in December 2001) as a Private Members Bill. It is therefore unlikely to become law.
Bullying in the workplace is estimated to cost industry three or four billion pounds per year while five billion people currently believe that they are being bullied at work. The Dignity at Work Bill aims to remedy this by promoting fairness in the workplace. It states that all employees 'shall have a right to dignity at work' and that a dignity clause shall be written into all contracts of employment, past and present. An employer commits a breach of this right if he behaves in any way to render the employee 'alarmed' or 'distressed', or if he treats an employee less favourably that he would treat other persons.
Employees who believe that they are being bullied can make recourse to the 1997 Stalking Act but, unsurprisingly, this is difficult to apply to the workplace. More frequently, case law and legal argument have allowed specific examples of bullying to be addressed under the Sex Discrimination Act or the Race Relations Act. However, not all cases of bullying can be tied to issues of race or gender. Instead, most bullied employees choose to leave their jobs. The advantage of the Dignity at Work Bill is that it supposedly remedies this gap in the law. It offers employees the solution they actually need to an apparently widespread problem.
The advantages offered by this Bill may not be restricted to the employee. Employers are already bound by legal responsibilities, in terms of sex, race, disability and health and safety. However, this Bill may offer them the opportunity to reduce their liability. It states that the employer shall not be liable if ‘at the time of the act or acts complained of the employer has in force a Dignity at Work policy.’ Primarily, such legislation would encourage employers to eradicate bullying at its source. Simultaneously, however, it would also protect them from claims from workers who have suffered injury or illness as a result of bullying at work, or workers who suffer unfair treatment because of their sex, race or disability.
However, this Bill may not offer as much to employers as it at first appears. The defence could be difficult to establish. It would involve determining whether or not the employer had full policies in place to prevent such breaches of dignity and took active steps to enforce these policies. Furthermore, a suitable defence requires the employer to repudiate the offending actions within three days. It is doubtful that three days is sufficiently long enough to fully investigate a claim, yet if repudiation does not occur, the employer loses its defence. More worrying is the fact that an apology made in haste may be difficult to challenge in front of a tribunal.
Finally, it is important to question whether or not this Bill can actually achieve what it sets out to. In theory the Dignity at Work Bill should clarify cases of bullying that are brought to tribunal. But this clarification has its limits. In fact, definition appears to be a central problem. Terms such as repudiation do not have clear meanings. Indeed, bullying itself is a difficult issue to categorise. The Bill does set out guidelines for judging unacceptable modes of behaviour, but nonetheless terms such as ‘alarm’ and ‘distress’ remain elusive. At present, however, the fundamental problem may be passing the Bill. It is feared that lack of parliamentary time may limit its success.