Letting light shine on workplace bullying

We need to talk about bullying, harassment and sexist practices at work in the cold light of day and not sweep them under the carpet.

Man bullying a woman sitting at a desk


The beginning of the week brought the announcement that BBC presenter Sarah Montague had been paid £400,000 as part of a settlement linked to concerns she raised about equal pay. The payment and an apology was made last year. Montague says it was the result of a long period of negotiations following revelations that she was paid significantly less than her male co-presenters.

The payment came to light following fellow BBC presenter Samira Ahmed’s equal pay case victory and amid reports that the BBC will release staff who struck equal pay settlements from their non-disclosure agreements. Employees who brought equal pay complaints were previously required to sign confidentiality clauses as part of any settlement, banning them from talking about the terms of their settlement or even acknowledging that they had secured a deal. Those who signed up to NDAs faced losing their payouts if they discussed their settlement or its circumstances with colleagues, friends or the media.

NDA cover-ups

A series of high profile cases and the debate around women’s pay has resulted in serious questions being asked about the use of NDAs to cover up bad behaviour by business. NDAs’ original aim was to prevent people from discussing confidential business information and keeping trade secrets private, but they have increasingly been used in recent years to effectively gag former workers from speaking about issues such as discrimination or sexual harassment.

Last year, Theresa May’s Government announced new legislation to prohibit Non-Disclosure Agreements from being used to silence those who have been sexually harassed or bullied at work.

At the heart of all of this, as with much of the debate about pay, is transparency. Without transparency things cannot move forward because no-one knows what the true nature of the problem is. If you sweep something under the carpet nothing gets done about it and each new case starts from point zero.


I recall working in one organisation where buying people off with settlement fees and gagging clauses was common. In an organisation ruled by bullies, people would go on stress leave and quietly disappear. Resignations would be announced on the group email – xx has decided to leave due to family reasons. You would then ring up xx and they would be in tears on the phone, having been through a humiliating process of having all their confidence stripped from them before being sacked.

Though we all knew what was going on, gagging clauses meant those of us who were left had little we could use against our employer if we were trying to protect ourselves against similar treatment or considering taking out a case against them – it was basically one individual’s word against theirs. I resigned instead of going down the settlement route, more fool me. I ended up having to find whatever job I could to get out at a time when my confidence was at rock bottom. I considered legal action and I did take out a grievance, if only to leave a record of what happened for whoever got into problems after me. I was given mediation, which felt like a humiliating, tick box exercise designed to cover the employer’s back.

In the end it was all too stressful. I had three young children to look after and what was my word against the fancy lawyer they hired? People who say that employment rights have gone too far clearly haven’t been around much. The cards are completely stacked against you. It’s only by linking up with other people facing similar treatment – and, crucially, by those people being able to speak out, that you can make a difference. Action against bullying in an organisation should not be viewed as a threat by employers. It should be viewed as what it is – an attempt to make the organisation better. Decades on, I would never recommend anyone worked for the employer I was with.

Flatter structures

At poorly managed companies, HR tends to blindly back bad managers, in part because they don’t think they have the authority to question the system and because it’s cheaper to lose an underling, even if that manager causes all their best workers to leave because, believe it or not, treating one person badly is not just about that one person. The rest of their team can see what is going on.  I interviewed a male manager a while ago. He spoke about how he had left his previous company because of the way they treated a female colleague.

The hierarchical structure of many companies, has to change, with a more level playing field imposed both in terms of status and pay. That’s easy to say, of course, but much harder to do, particularly in older companies where structures and cultures are embedded. However, while it seems difficult and risky to address power dynamics, not doing so is also risky in today’s fast-moving business world as recent pay settlements show. Allied to flatter structures is a need to change the way organisations value functions such as HR and what they represent. Hiring, training and keeping people is not an add-on ‘soft’ extra. Developing people’s potential needs to be placed at the very centre of organisations.

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