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Taking on a giant – How I won a bullying and harassment case in the workplace

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EllenRussell-BullyingI remember feeling completely overjoyed as I landed my dream job working for one of the most respected financial firms in the UK.   This was going to be an amazing opportunity and I intended to make the most of it.

In less than one week that dream started to dissolve when my line manager started treating me aggressively.  Every time I tried to communicate with this individual the end result would be the same.  He would shout, dismiss me and generally tried to make me feel uncomfortable and worthless.

At first, I wondered if it was me, was it my approach?  What was I doing wrong?  I tried various tactics to smooth over the situation, but to no avail.  I sent a polite email to my line manager suggesting that we arrange a meeting to discuss the issues. I received no response.  As part of my role I had access to the individual’s mailbox.  I was shocked to see that he had forwarded my email about the meeting request on to the HR manager with a clear instruction, “get rid of her, you have 3 weeks”.   I was mortified.  What had I done to cause such a reaction?

Within a day or so, the HR manager approached me for a one-to-one meeting.  I welcomed the meeting as an opportunity to tell them what had been going on and to find out why I was being treated so badly.  The HR manager concluded that given what I had experienced, that I had been the victim of daily bullying and harassment and that the behaviour of my line manager was not acceptable.  The HR manager advised me that a grievance procedure would be my only route to getting the issue resolved.  I pondered what to do as I was well aware that grievance procedures can affect your future career prospects.  I asked the HR manager to look into alternative ways of solving the problems prior to going this route.  Adamant against my suggestion, the advice was that a grievance procedure was the only way to solve the issue therefore, I agreed and this is where the nightmare really began.

I knew this situation was going to be painful and I needed to understand the process, therefore, I consulted with the union for advice and asked for help via a union representative.  The union was extremely slow. However, they eventually provided me with a representative, who turned out to be fairly unhelpful.  By this point I had started to lose faith in the very system that was supposed to be there to support me.  I researched the union’s terms and conditions and the roles and responsibilities of union representatives, and much to my disappointment I learnt that I was not receiving the normal level of service from the union representative.  This individual was slow in responding to my emails and telephone messages and when I was successful in tracking them down on the telephone, they always had an excuse as to why they couldn’t speak to me and promised to call me back, which they rarely did.   Although I reached out to them for help, the responses I eventually received were not one of sympathy or help, in fact, I was being made to feel like I was a nuisance.  During one conversation I was told that I was not special.  In a vulnerable moment of my working life, I couldn’t understand the meaning behind the level of cruelty by their statement when I had done nothing wrong.  I had approached the union because I needed help, not made to feel like I was a burden to their staff!

I had no choice but to raise the issue with the union and ask for a replacement of the current representative.  Once again, the union was not very helpful. However, they eventually provided me with an alternative representative.   Unfortunately, this individual was of the same ilk as the last.

I was starting to realise that if I was going to get any form of justice, I would have to fight my case single-handedly.  The situation was escalating, by this point I had also found out that my line manager had filed a case against me, which in my opinion was full of lies and allegations.

It was at this point I knew that I needed to educate myself if I was going to take on this big giant of an organisation.  I sought advice from ACAS, the Employment Tribunal, (2 Solicitors on separate occasions who stated I had a strong case against my employers, but later withdrew their opinions).  I went to the Citizens Advice department, The Law Society, Parliament office & an alternative Trade Union. I also joined the British Library so I could access the best information on HR procedures and employment law.  I spent every waking hour outside of work learning about everything that was pertinent to my case.

After several weeks, I received an invitation letter to attend a disciplinary.  I was the victim, yet I was being called to a disciplinary?  The invitation letter did not outline specifically what the disciplinary was about, so I questioned it.   With no further details shared, the HR manager ruled the disciplinary would still go ahead regardless of my opposition.  I attended, reluctantly and clearly caught the HR individuals off guard by asking, ‘Why am I here?’  The disciplinary HR representatives were unable to give me a straight, clear and specific answer and when the HR manager stated that I was not being disciplined and that I was in a disciplinary meeting to see whether I could be disciplined, I called the meeting to a halt.   This was a ridiculous situation.

I had got to the point where I had had enough, so I went directly to the Chairman’s office.  They advised me to escalate my issues to HR Employment Relations and to take out an additional grievance against the HR manager.  How many grievances can one girl raise just to be treated like a normal human being!

Unimaginable tactics by HR and HR Employment Relations then followed which I can only describe as methods deliberately designed to break me down and to force me to resign.   I wasn’t going to give up.  I was going to fight for what was right, not just for me, but for future employees who may find themselves in similar situations.  By now I was studying day and night, I scanned every word of my employment contract, including the policies and procedures of HR and the processes of an employment tribunal.  It was through this study that I realised that in my case, HR had not only breached its own policies and procedures, but the laws of employment.

I encountered every scare tactic in my fight against my employer – even a superior employment tribunal judge warned me that I would never win my case.   That said, when my case went to tribunal, thanks to an extremely savvy tribunal judge, the case was ruled in my favour.   I’ll never forget his words of advice to the firm’s legal representative, ‘Do what is right or you will meet a very painful day in court.’  That said it all for me.

After everything I went through, once I had won the case, I decided to resign from the organisation and by legally representing my case on my own without any help from anyone I received an out of court settlement from them later that year.

It’s been four years since the outcome and I still bear the scars of the whole experience.  It affected my confidence, my livelihood and caused me a huge amount of stress, although I am now happily self-employed running my own businesses.

My advice to others, who find themselves in this situation, is not to give up.  These organisations are bigger than individuals and they know it.   I could have just backed off and there were times where I almost crumbled, however, I knew I was right and I had complete faith that the truth would eventually lead to the right outcome and, in my case, it did!

The writer of this article asked to remain anonymous.

My advice to anyone in this situation

EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS

Read and understand your employment contract.  Learn the basic information your contract should have.  Make sure it is up-to-date.  If there is anything you don’t understand, ask a trusted work colleague or make an appointment with Citizens Advice.  If you seek advice from HR about your employment contract, they will clearly question why.

EMPLOYMENT LAWS

Read and understand as much as you can about employment laws.  The government continuously update the laws and it is a good idea to stay up-to-date.

COMPANY HANDBOOKS

Read and understand the contents of your company working handbooks. Make sure each handbook is up-do-date.

Links to useful websites:

http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1461

https://www.gov.uk/employment-contracts-and-conditions/overview

https://www.gov.uk/browse/working/redundancies-dismissals

https://www.gov.uk/browse/working/time-off

https://www.gov.uk/browse/working/rights-trade-unions

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