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Case law: Employer not liable for oppressive, unacceptable but one-off harassment of one employee by another

Employers facing claims for bullying or harassment by other employees will not be liable for the conduct of one employee towards another, even if it is ‘oppressive and unacceptable’, unless there have been at least two such incidents, the High Court has confirmed.

Legal Alert

This update was published in Legal Alert - December 2014

Legal Alert is a monthly checklist from Atom Content Marketing highlighting new and pending laws, regulations, codes of practice and rulings that could have an impact on your business.

An employee working in HR alleged she had been bullied and harassed by her line manager for several weeks, resulting in such stress that it caused severe, lasting psychiatric injury. She brought a harassment claim against her employer on grounds it was liable for the line manager’s actions. In such claims, the employee must show there has been a ‘course of conduct’ involving ‘oppressive and unacceptable’ conduct on at least two occasions.

In this case, an external consultant had been brought in to review the HR function. She was subsequently appointed as interim HR manager, which made her the employee’s line manager. On one occasion she seriously lost her temper with the employee. The employee went on immediate sick leave, and her employment was later terminated after disciplinary proceedings had been brought against her.

The line manager was carrying out a review during the relevant period, in which she had recommended changes that could result in the employee losing her job. The two had had a number of difficult meetings and the line manager also seemed to have found the employee irritating at times, and spoken to her harshly.

The Court agreed that the manager’s behaviour on the day she had lost her temper had been oppressive and unacceptable. However, it decided the necessary course of conduct had not been shown, as nothing else in the line manager’s behaviour amounted to bullying or harassment.

It also found that the line manager’s loss of temper, although serious, was a momentary, isolated lapse which could not reasonably be expected to have caused or contributed to a major psychiatric illness. The real cause of the employee’s stress was her continued resentment and sense of grievance and injustice.

Operative date

  • Now

Recommendation

  • Employers facing claims under laws protecting employees from bullying or harassment by another employee should consider whether there has been a course of conduct involving at least two ‘oppressive and unacceptable’ incidents of bullying or harassment by the other employee. If not, they will not be vicariously liable for the other employee’s conduct.
Case ref: Boylin v The Christie NHS Foundation [2014] EWHC 3363

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