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The case of Jeremy Clarkson: bullying in the workplace

Unless you've been living in a cave on the outer Hebrides for the past few weeks it won't have escaped your attention that Jeremy Clarkson has been in some bother.

Clarkson is no stranger to controversy and scandal of course, having caused offence to individual celebrities, numerous minority groups, whole countries and even sparking a diplomatic incident over the Falkland Islands.

However, behind the headlines, tabloid gossip and larger-than-life celebrity egos involved in this story, there is a serious issue at the heart of it – that of bullying in the workplace.  We all know that bullying at work is no modern development.  It has happened for centuries and it may well continue to persist in some workplaces.

The facts
More often than not, bullying will come to the attention of an employer directly from the individual on the receiving end of it, either as a formal or informal grievance complaint.

Bullying allegations should be taken seriously and investigated accordingly, both for the sake of the individual complainant and the remainder of the workforce, many of whom may feel less empowered to raise such a complaint.

In most cases incidents – such as the one alleged to have occurred between Clarkson and his Top Gear producer – don’t come out of the blue.

There will usually be some build-up or background to a peak event, such as the one reported throughout the media which has now cost Clarkson his job.

What should employers do?
Employers should take notice of any comments or conduct which they consider may be unwanted, hurtful or disrespectful to the recipient.

On many occasions, issues between staff members can be nipped in the bud before relations descend to physical violence.

Where physical violence in the workplace does occur the matter is undoubtedly one of the utmost seriousness, at times requiring involvement of the police or safeguarding authorities depending on the nature of the working environment.

The Clarkson incident presented his employer, the BBC, with a common dilemma in bullying cases; namely, the temptation to turn a blind eye or impose a lesser sanction on a highly valuable employee simply because of his worth to the organisation.

Ultimately most commentators agree (notwithstanding the 1 million-plus signatures on the ‘bring-back-Clarkson’ petition) that the BBC had no real option in its response to Clarkson’s alleged misconduct.

The alternative of letting it pass or imposing a sanction short of dismissal would have sent an appalling message to the rest of the BBC’s workforce about what is acceptable conduct in the workplace.

The setting of precedents in misconduct cases, particularly involving bullying, can be a very dangerous and costly issue for employers if they get it wrong.

To do nothing, or display leniency, could also have opened the risk of a constructive dismissal claim against the organisation from the producer for failing to provide a safe place of work.

In this case the BBC has demonstrated that even its top talent is not beyond the scope of its disciplinary and workplace policies.

That message is invaluable to the remainder of its workforce and in just one action, the organisation has demonstrated that it is not an employer who condones bullying in the workplace.

Of course, as with all employment law matters, each case turns on its own merits.  What constitutes bullying can be a very subjective, fact-sensitive issue.

How can Ward Hadaway help?
We would always advise our clients to take advice on any issues of this nature in a timely fashion.

We are here to help with difficult employment issues such as these so please get in touch with your Ward Hadaway contact as soon as you think you have an employee relations issue that requires legal advice.