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Supreme Court Clarifies What Constitutes Bullying in the Workplace

Group of workers

The decision of the Supreme Court on the 26th May 2017 in the case of Una Ruffley v The Board of Management of St. Anne’s School has set a benchmark for bullying and harassment in the workplace.

The Plaintiff alleged that the disciplinary process adopted by her employers was part of a bullying campaign against her causing her to suffer psychological personal injury. The High Court held that the Plaintiff was subjected to repeated inappropriate behaviour during an unfair disciplinary process resulting in a psychiatric injury and awarded damages in the sum of €255,276.00. The Defendants appealed this decision to the Court of Appeal who overturned the decision of the High Court by two to one which was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Workplace bullying is defined under Irish Law as “repeated inappropriate behaviour......which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work”.

The Supreme Court agreed that the test set out for bullying in Quigley v Complex Tool and Moulding Limited is the correct test. This test contains three elements that must all be fulfilled on each occasion of behaviour which is argued constitutes a pattern of bullying namely:

1. Repeated
2. Inappropriate
3. Undermining the dignity of the employee at work.

The Supreme Court found against the Plaintiff applying the above test and ruled that she was not entitled to damages.
In clarifying the test, the Supreme Court indicated that it is not sufficient that the conduct consists of a number of incidents, it must be repeated. With regards the “inappropriate” element, the Court indicated that it must not be merely wrong, inappropriate or offensive but must be reasonably regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work. The Court held the view that behaviour which is “inappropriate at a human level” and will be limited to conduct that can described as “outrageous, unacceptable and exceeding all bounds tolerated by decent society” was required and not necessarily unlawful behaviour such as an unfair disciplinary procedure.

The Supreme Court also distinguished ordinary management from bullying and held that a certain degree of “robustness” is expected from employees. It referred to the need to balance the protection of individuals from intolerable behaviour with the legitimate need of employers to investigate disciplinary matters where necessary.

The case provides some comfort to employers that an employee will have to satisfy a high threshold in order to win a claim for bullying arising from internal procedures. Whilst this case was based on a claim of bullying arising from disciplinary procedures, the test set by the Supreme Court will no doubt also be applied to all claims for bullying in the workplace.
The case highlights the need for employers to ensure that disciplinary procedures are fairly applied at all times and that they have clear policies in place for dealing with allegations of bullying. It is also vital that management are properly trained in applying internal procedures.

From an employee’s perspective, the case establishes that employees are entitled to protection from unlawful and unacceptable conduct which may cause psychiatric injury but there is a high threshold in order to successfully bring a bullying claim which should not be made lightly. Unfair treatment is to be distinguished from treatment undermining dignity. If an employee is wronged he/she should carefully consider the appropriate remedy.

Finally, it is important that both employers and employees realise that they are both required to behave reasonably and the Courts will look at which party was responsible for the breakdown of the relationship when making its decision.

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