Defining Workplace Bullying – Landmark Judgment Clarifies Key Principles

Author:Mr Séamus Given, Louise O'Byrne and Rachel Barry
Profession:Arthur Cox

A landmark court decision has provided essential practical guidance to employers seeking clarity on what constitutes bullying under Irish law. In a split decision, the Court of Appeal in Ruffley v Board of Management of St Anne's School overturned the highest ever award of damages to an employee for workplace bullying on the grounds that the defendant's actions did not constitute workplace bullying.

Workplace bullying is defined under Irish law as "repeated inappropriate behaviour... which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual's right to dignity at work." As it can be difficult to determine when this threshold has been met in practice, the Court's detailed consideration of the definition of workplace bullying is an important development for employers. The conclusions of the Court and the key lessons for employers following the decision are outlined below.


The High Court had awarded the plaintiff €255,276 for personal injuries caused by alleged bullying in the course of her employment as a special needs assistant (SNA) in the defendant's school. The allegations of bullying arose from the implementation of a flawed disciplinary process by her employer over the course of a year.

In 2009, the plaintiff became concerned and sought help when a child she was working with fell asleep in a room used for individual therapy (the Sensory Room). During this incident, the Principal discovered that the plaintiff had locked the Sensory Room door from the inside. Despite the plaintiff's claims that other SNAs had locked the Sensory Room door, a four week monitoring process was put in place to review the pupil's progress under the plaintiff's guidance.

Towards the end of the monitoring period, the class teacher noted that the plaintiff had ticked a box on the monitoring form which indicated that the pupil had completed a goal when in fact he had not done so. The plaintiff was not allowed to correct this entry, and the disciplinary process was reactivated. The board decided that the plaintiff should be given a final written warning, a sanction just below dismissal. After a short delay, the plaintiff was informed of the sanction and sought to appeal the result, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The plaintiff continued working until September 2010, when, after an exchange over alleged lateness for work, she went on sick leave due to work related stress. She subsequently sued her employer, claiming that its actions...

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