Doubts about what exactly constitutes workplace bullying are having a detrimental effect on victims of genuine cases of bullying, according to a workplace relations expert.
Gerard Phillips, the head of Middletons' workplace relations and safety group, told Lawyers Weekly that the fact there is no statutory definition of bullying poses a threat to necessary processes of performance management and detracts from genuine claims of bullying.
According to Phillips, he has heard of cases whereby young lawyers give mutually opposed and exclusive definitions to bullying, such as "overloading someone with more work than they can possibly do" or "giving them nothing" - examples which he said show that bullying is a "highly subjective activity".
"What probably passed for [acceptable] behaviour in law firms 20 years ago might be anachronistic now and may well be considered bullying," said Phillips.
"It's a really difficult issue to grapple with in the context of the professional services firm."
The recent harassment claim brought against DLA Piper has once again highlighted the issue of workplace bullying, but Phillips said the fact that someone institutes a claim against a workplace does not necessarily mean it is "toxic", adding that allegations of workplace bullying are sometimes made by employees as a deliberate tactic to protect themselves.
"If I'm under the hammer or being performance managed myself, I could potentially stop the process dead in its tracks, because once a claim is made everyone retreats to their corners and bullying allegations take over," he said.
"If everything becomes bullying, it becomes like 'the bully who cried wolf'. It's a shame, because without a doubt there are people who are bullied."
Phillips also said the problem of bullying within law firms is no worse than in other workplaces, and said that most bullying allegations made these days are in the public service as opposed to private enterprise.
"A lot of people who are accused of bullying are actually shocked when they read a claim," he said.