Yes, it’s the Silly Season, which Wikipedia helpfully defines as “the period lasting for a few summer months typified by the emergence of frivolous news stories in the media”. So, naturally, a ‘news story’ that the Covid-related trend towards working from home (WFH) and hybrid working has led to a massive increase in the number of employment tribunal claims for bullying is all over the supposedly specialist Human Resources media.
The number of employment tribunal claims lodged [sic] citing allegations of bullying has increased by 44 per cent over the past 12 months, reaching record highs, new research has revealed. The analysis, conducted by law firm Fox & Partners, found that bullying claims [sic] increased from 581 to 835 between March 2021 and March 2022. The firm dubbed the findings a “canary in the mine” moment for many organisations, suggesting this may signal that leadership teams are failing to address a growth in toxic work cultures. People Management (the voice of the CIPD)
Ivor Adair, partner at Fox & Partners, said: “Tackling workplace bullying is no easy task, particularly in changing work environments. The record number of bullying claims [sic] is a worrying sign that some leadership teams have struggled to maintain healthy workplaces during the shift to hybrid working.” Personnel Today
Research from law firm Fox and Partners found there were 835 tribunals relating to bullying in 2021/22, up 44% from the previous year. The number of claims [sic] has more than doubled since the 412 recorded in 2017/18. Hybrid working environments, the report suggested, have brought new forms of bullying to the workplace, such as leaving colleagues out of remote meetings, comments over video calls, and gossiping over messaging platforms. HR magazine
“WFH may not be working for everyone. A record number of bullying claims [sic] have featured in lawsuits at the UK’s employment courts over the past year, in a sign that while working from home is welcomed by many, it’s also contributing to tensions for others.” Bloomberg UK
There is just one teeny weeny problem with this story: neither Fox & Partners nor anybody else know how many employment tribunal claims citing allegations of bullying were made in each year since 2017/18, as ‘bullying’ is not a jurisdiction identified in the official tribunal statistics published by the Ministry of Injustice (and the Ministry has not yet published any breakdown of new tribunal claims by jurisdiction for 2021/22). And, if we do not know how many claims there have been, we cannot say that there has been any increase. And we certainly cannot ascribe that increase to WFH or hybrid working.
No, all that Fox & Partners have done is conduct a word search for ‘bullying’ on the HMCTS online register of employment tribunal decisions. But the ET decisions on the register are only a small proportion – about one in eight – of all ET claims made, as the great majority of claims are settled or withdrawn without a tribunal decision. For example, in 2017/18 there were 110,098 ET claims, but only 13,560 ET decisions were published on the register. And in 2020/21 there were 117,926 claims, but only 14,579 decisions were published on the register.
Furthermore, the number of ET decisions containing any particular word or phrase such as ‘bullying’ or ‘numpty employment lawyer’ is of course influenced by the total number of ET decisions, which goes up and down (in 2021/22, just 12,680 decisions were published on the register, down from 25,895 in 2019/20). In other words, what would matter (if it mattered at all) is not the number of decisions containing that word or phrase, but the proportion of all decisions containing that word or phrase.
So, while the Fox & Partners ‘research’ (which I replicated in about five minutes on the register earlier today) tells us that the number of decisions including the word ‘bullying’ increased from 412 in 2017/18 to 708 in 2019/20, it overlooks or deliberately ignores the fact that the total number of decisions published on the register also nearly doubled, from 13,560 in 2017/18, to 25,895 in 2019/20. So what is presented as a 72% increase, from 412 to 708, was actually a decrease, from 3.04% to 2.73%.
In any case, an ET decision can of course include the word ‘bullying’ without the ET claim having had anything to do with the Covid pandemic, working from home, or hybrid working. Indeed, it can include the word ‘bullying’ without the claim having involved any allegation(s) of bullying – it could just be an incidental reference to the employer’s Harassment & Anti-Bullying Policy, for example. (Between 2019/20 and 2021/22 there was a 1,494% increase in the number of ET decisions containing the word ‘hybrid’, but … well, I’ll leave you to think about why that was). If you don’t believe me, take a look at the first few decisions that come up if you do a word search for ‘bullying’ in 2021/22. And do feel free to let me know how many decisions you can find in which the claim related to leaving colleagues out of remote meetings, making comments over video calls, or gossiping over messaging platforms.
Fox & Partners would have needed to read through each of the 835 decisions in 2021/22 that include the word ‘bullying’, and those in other years, and tell us how many of the associated claims actually involved allegations of bullying linked to WFH or hybrid working. But they haven’t done that. Because that would have taken (a lot) more than five minutes.
All Fox & Partners have done is spot a random and meaningless increase in the number of ET decisions (not claims) containing the word ‘bullying’, and then assert a link to the pandemic-related trend towards WFH and hybrid working. But that ‘link’ is entirely spurious. Fox & Partners have not identified any upward trend in the number of ET claims citing allegations of bullying, let alone any upward trend in the number of ET claims citing allegations of bullying linked to WFH or hybrid working. So the resultant media coverage is not just frivolous, but entirely bogus.
Fox & Partners may just as well have asserted a link between the trend towards WFH and the 73% increase in the number of ET decisions containing the word ‘chocolate’ in 2021/22. Or the 46% increase in the number of ET decisions containing the word ‘penis’. Well, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? The trend towards WFH is allowing everyone to get their dick out during office hours.
WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG TO BRING YOU AN IMPORTANT PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: CORRELATION DOES NOT IMPLY CAUSATION
Yes, as any regular reader(s) of this blog will have spotted, this is just another variant of the old ‘Get Our Law Firm’s Name in The Papers in The Hope of Drumming-up Some Much-needed Business by Issuing a Press Release With an Eye-catching But Totally Rubbish Story About ET Claim Numbers’ trick.
And, as documented on this blog, numpty journalists fall for it every time, mindlessly typing out the law firm’s press release and hitting the ‘publish’ button. My favourite is still the 13,000% increase in age discrimination claims in Scotland in October 2020, which got typed up by numpty journalists at the Guardian, Daily Express, Telegraph, Daily Mail and Yorkshire Post, as well as at People Management and Personnel Today. Fox & Partners are regular performers of the trick, as are GQ Littler, who did a similar search for ‘flexible working’ on the register of ET decisions in January (you can even just tick a box to search decisions for ‘flexible working’).
The Silly Season will soon be over. But unscrupulous employment lawyers will continue to use this tired trick, and numpty journalists will continue to fall for it.