The rise of upward bullying: How employers can protect themselves from being bullied by employees

When we think of bullying in the workplace, we often picture an employer berating an employee. But more and more this traditional view around workplace bullying is being flipped with employees, who are well aware of their value, bullying the employer.

This upward bullying trend has resulted in a significant rise in complaints over the last 12 months, with employers who don’t have proper employment contracts or HR processes in place at the greatest risk of being targeted.

What is causing the rise? Jonathan Mamaril, Principal and Director of NB Lawyers says, “With employees having greater access to confidential information both on and off the premises due to flexible work arrangements, employers are at risk of employees exploiting this information for self-gain or survival.”

How are employees bullying employers?

Knowing they bring in a significant portion of the sales, have key knowledge of the inner workings of a business and have formed strong relationships with major clients, employees are bullying employers and management to meet their demands, leaving employers trapped not knowing what to do.

In the instances where bullying or blackmailing has taken place, employee intimidation has included:

  • Holding confidential information for ransom
  • Threatening to make financial information public
  • Using adverse information about the company to negotiate
  • Threatening to take clients with them if they leave
  • False sexual harassment complaints

Out for their own gain, most cases of upward bullying have been driven by an employee’s desire to:

  • Gain or secure a promotion
  • Prevent performance management
  • Avoid termination of employment
  • Force the termination of another staff member

A case in point

Recently, we had an employee blackmail their employer. The employee in question was given access to financial documents and quickly realised that certain members of staff were paid higher than her. The employee started questioning these staff members about their pay and “why they deserved it”.

The employee also confronted management and threatened to release information about staff pay company-wide if she wasn’t given an immediate pay rise and also threatened to quit during a busy financial period of the company.

The action taken required a number of steps including:

  • Limiting her access to confidential information
  • Reminding her about the confidential information clauses contained in her employment contract
  • Talking to the staff members affected – and taking complaints if required
  • Sending a show cause letter to the employee for breaches of the employment contract and actions considered as misconduct
  • Having the employee go on gardening leave during this period

How you can prevent bullying employees

While complaints of upward bullying are increasing, the good news is that you can prevent it from happening if you take the right preventative steps.

To ensure you and your management team are protected, we recommend implementing the following tips:

  • Ensure all employment contracts and policies have provisions for disciplinary action in the event a staff member misuses confidential information or intellectual property
  • Change and tighten terms that prevent insubordination
  • Create a gossiping policy
  • Take complaints seriously and deal with them as soon as possible
  • Keep contemporaneous notes of any verbal conversations and keep copies of written correspondence including emails
  • Have your own support person in meetings with insubordinate employees
  • Never enter into any agreement without first obtaining legal advice, if you do you could reduce significant rights whether they are contractual or legislative

Need further advice on how to minimise your risks of upward bullying? NB Lawyers, the lawyers for employers, offer a free 20-minute consultation to discuss how you could be exposed to bullying from employees. Call us today on 07 3876 5111 for your free 20-minute consultation.

Written by
Jonathan Mamaril, Principal & Director
NB Lawyers – the Lawyers for Employers
jonathanm@nb-lawyers.com.au
07 3876 5111