We use cookies to collect and analyse information on site performance and usage to improve and customise your experience, where applicable. View our Cookies Policy. Click Accept and continue to use our website or Manage to review and update your preferences.

Persistent bullying ‘not sustainable’ for profession

13 Oct 2022 / Law Society Print

Persistent bullying ‘not sustainable’ for profession

Law Society President Michelle Ní Longáin has told a webinar on wellbeing that the organisation is “determined to do more” to address the problems identified by the Dignity Matters report.

The report revealed unacceptable levels of bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment in the solicitors’ profession; significant underreporting of incidents; and limited consequences for those who had engaged in such behaviour.

Speaking at the online Business of Wellbeing Summit 2022 on 11 October, the president said that, while she dealt with these issues on a daily basis as an employment-and-equality lawyer, she still found it “stark” to read the report about her own profession.

She said that, while the Society had started the work that needed to be done to address these issues, it was not complacent.

Driving people out

The event heard from George Artley (project lawyer at the International Bar Association) about the costs of bullying and harassment.

He referred to an IBA survey showing that these issues were “rife” in the legal profession, and highlighted figures showing that only a quarter of sexual-harassment cases were reported.

Artley said that bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment had been shown to drive people out of the workplace − and out of the profession itself.

He warned that a profession with persistent levels of poor mental health and wellbeing, and high levels of unacceptable behaviour, was “not a sustainable profession”.

Costs to businesses

As well as the profound effects of such behaviour on individuals, he stressed the costs to organisations − including higher staff turnover, increased recruitment, training-and-development costs, and possible litigation.

Figures from the US estimated that sexual-harassment complaints cost businesses up to $46 million in 2015, while a study in Britain showed that workplace bullying cost the economy £18 billion a year.

Artley later told a panel discussion that an IBA report on bullying and harassment had urged more clarity on the nature and scope of regulation, as many regulatory frameworks were “under-developed or unclear”, and needed to be adapted.

He also told the webinar that reporting channels should be reformed, to give complainants options such as the ability to make informal or anonymous complaints.

Not so simple

Patricia Murray (senior organisational psychologist, Health and Safety Authority) spoke about the difficulty in deciding what type of behaviour constituted bullying, describing the term as “like jelly”.

“It isn’t so simple that we can take a picture of it and say: ‘this is wrong’,” she said, adding that the alleged bullies would often say that they were the victims.

Murray said that people accused of bullying often believed that they were “getting even”, or “sorting out standards that the other person is not adhering to”.

In addition, she added, other people were often split on whether or not the behaviour that they witnessed was bullying or not.

The psychologist told the event that bullying usually began with some sort of disharmony or uncertainty in the workplace, or where there was ambiguity about roles and responsibilities.

She advised employers to try to reduce uncertainty, and “get in there early” where there was disharmony, adding that it was easier to deal with bullying allegations early “in a decent, human way”, rather than having to go down the legal route.

“If no one is looking, people will do their worst,” Murray said, advising organisations to “look at your managers, make sure they’re watching, and make sure they’re equipped to not just look the other way”.

Supports available

Mary Duffy (professional wellbeing executive, Law Society) told attendees that the organisation had committed to addressing the findings of Dignity Matters through training and support, setting up an expanded Psychological Services system of supports for solicitors.

She added that supports were also available through Legal Mind, a subsidised initiative, run independently of the Society.

The organisation has also set up a ‘Dignity at Work’ contact point, while a ‘Dignity at Work’ toolkit would be available on the Society’s website next month, to provide practical guidelines on policies that workplaces could adopt.

Encouraging people to speak up

Professor Louise Crowley (School of Law, UCC) spoke about what individual solicitors could do in the battle against bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment.

She is involved in an initiative called Bystander Intervention, which provides training and support to enable people to speak up when they come across unacceptable behaviour.

Prof Crowley stressed the importance of “awakening awareness” in colleagues to recognise unacceptable behaviour, and encouraging and empowering them to make safe and effective interventions.

“It’s about coming together to say: ‘this is not acceptable’,” she told the event.

“Early intervention can dictate very strongly the types of behaviour that won’t be tolerated, and will also prevent escalation,” she added.

“If you choose not to step in, you’re becoming part of the problem by implicitly accepting that behaviour,” Prof Crowley stated.

She added, however, that intervention did not have to mean confrontation, and included methods such as not laughing at a joke, interruption, or body language.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland