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Preventing and responding to incidents of bullying and harassment in charities


purple abstract

It will come as no surprise that bullying and harassment in the workplace has been a frequent topic in our employment blog. It will also be no surprise that bullying and harassment are not confined to corporates, but can also appear as issues in the charity sector. The impact of a poor organisational culture, in which bullying can take place unchecked, cannot be underestimated. It can lead to low staff morale, high turnover, legal claims, and reputational and financial risk.

Recognising this, a working group co-chaired by the Charity Commission has focused on the respective roles and responsibilities of those working in and with the charity sector to explore ways to address bullying and harassment. The outcome of this discussion, in summary, is that charities will be held to account by the Charity Commission if they fail to address problems of bullying and harassment. Before we look at the specific advice from the Charity Commission, however, we give a brief overview of the issues of bullying and harassment from an employment law perspective.

What can a bullying claim look like?

It is not possible for employees to bring a claim for bullying in isolation, meaning they must attach it to something else. For example:

  • An employee might be able to bring a claim for harassment under the Equality Act 2010 if the unwanted conduct is related to a protected characteristic (eg sex, race, age, disability etc), and it has the purpose or effect of either violating the victim’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

  • If an employee can show that they are being bullied because of a protected characteristic, they may also be able to claim that the behaviour amounts to direct discrimination.

  • If an employee feels that it is no longer possible to carry on working because of the bullying they are suffering in the workplace, they may argue that this amounts to a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence, entitling them to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal.

  • A complaint about bullying may, in some circumstances, amount to a protected disclosure under whistleblowing legislation. In those cases, employees will be protected against detriment or dismissal as a result of making such a disclosure.

  • Employees who are bullied may well suffer from stress-related illness as a consequence of the bullying. While there is no specific legislation that requires employers to prevent stress at work, in the context of bullying-related stress it is important to bear in mind that employers are under a specific statutory duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to ensure so far as is reasonably practicable the health, safety and welfare of their employees.

How should charities mitigate the risk of bullying in the workplace?

  • The first point would be to take allegations of bullying seriously (whether or not connected to a protected characteristic).
  • Having a formal anti-harassment and bullying policy (which also covers cyberbullying) in place, as well as a whistleblowing policy, is recommended. In addition, employees should receive training on the policies.
  • Encouraging a “speak out” and open culture.
  • Taking prompt and appropriate action when staff do speak up.
  • Embed a good workplace culture where professional standards are maintained and move away from any conduct which can allow bullying to flourish (eg aggressive or authoritarian management style, excessive demands on employees to meet targets / deadlines or fear or retribution for raising concerns).

Heeding the above advice will help charities to act in line with the Charity Commission’s expectations around bullying and harassment, which are set out in the press release summarising the working group’s findings. The Commission has sought to clarify the responsibilities of trustees in dealing with these issues, and has taken the opportunity to explain the role of the Commission in exercising its (fairly broad) regulatory powers.

Trustee responsibilities and bullying

Who is responsible?

It is charity trustees who are ultimately accountable for matters relating to bullying within their charity, and this is underlined by the emphasis placed by the working group on trustees’ responsibilities when it comes to tackling bullying and harassment.

What are trustees expected to do?

  • Ensure that clear policies and processes are in place to cover possible instances of bullying and harassment, so that staff understand (and can be expected to follow) clear procedures when issues arise. The Commission’s safeguarding advice expands on the sort of checking and challenging trustees should periodically carry out to make sure policies are fit for purpose.

  • Ensure that allegations of bullying are handled appropriately, and not ignored or swept under the rug. This will include action to:

    • make certain that bullying and harassment allegations are handled in accordance with the requirements of employment law and other relevant legislation.

    • be mindful of the Charity Commission’s Serious Incident Reporting regime – the working group and the Commission are clear that it is not only proven instances of bullying and harassment that should be reported – allegations in themselves, when serious enough, should be reported as serious incidents.

The various responsibilities above form part of charity trustees’ overall legal duties to act in the charity’s best interests, manage its resources responsibly, and ensure that it is accountable (to staff, volunteers, beneficiaries, and other stakeholders). Acting in contravention of these charity law duties could attract unwelcome consequences for trustees and their charities, including intervention by the Charity Commission.

Intervention by the Commission

When will the Commission intervene?

The working group has highlighted the fact that the Charity Commission will prioritise its involvement in charity bullying and harassment issues by addressing instances posing the highest risk of harm. It points to circumstances where, for example, widespread or systemic bullying has not been addressed by trustees.

What will intervention by the Commission look like?

The Charity Commission has a range of responses available to it where it seeks to intervene on bullying and harassment issues. On the gentler end, the Commission can issue regulatory advice to trustees, but in response to more serious examples of mismanagement or governance failures relating to bullying, the Commission can open a statutory inquiry into a charity.

The working group’s findings indicated that the Commission will focus on the governance of the charity, with the aim of making sure that trustees are responding to bullying incidents appropriately (so as to prevent further wrongdoing and harm within the charity).

Limits to the Commission’s intervention

The Charity Commission is keen to clarify that the resolution of individual employment issues does not fall within its purview. These are to be addressed through grievance procedures and the employment tribunals (criminal offences, meanwhile, must obviously be dealt with by law enforcement / the police).

Trustees should be aware, however, that the Charity Commission’s range of regulatory powers is extensive. It can suspend or remove trustees, direct trustees to take particular actions by order, and establish a scheme for the administration of a charity where it deems any of these actions necessary in order to protect the charity.

Consequently, charity trustees should be mindful of their obligations relating to bullying and harassment, and should make sure they deal with incidents in line with the expectations of employment law and the Charity Commission.

If you require further information about anything covered in this blog, please contact Alice Parker, Henry Brereton or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, December 2022

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About the authors

Alice Parker lawyer

Alice Parker

Senior Associate

Alice trained and qualified at an international law firm in London before joining the Farrers Employment team in 2009. She left Farrers in 2011 to relocate to Hong Kong and then Malaysia and she returned to London in 2021 when she re-joined the Farrers Employment team.

Alice trained and qualified at an international law firm in London before joining the Farrers Employment team in 2009. She left Farrers in 2011 to relocate to Hong Kong and then Malaysia and she returned to London in 2021 when she re-joined the Farrers Employment team.

Email Alice +44 (0)20 3375 7288
Henry Brereton lawyer photo

Henry Brereton


Henry is involved in advising charities and not-for-profits on a range of issues, including matters relating to governance, grant-making, and strategic concerns.

Henry is involved in advising charities and not-for-profits on a range of issues, including matters relating to governance, grant-making, and strategic concerns.

Email Henry +44 (0)20 3375 7693
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