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November 25, 2015

HR Issues – Workplace Bullying and Harassment

The week of 16th to 20th November 2015 was declared an Anti-Bullying week by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, to promote awareness of bullying and harassment in the workplace.  High profile bullying allegations were also publicised recently in the national press in relation to the death of a young Conservative activist in September of this year.  Allegedly, reports of bullying were ignored by a senior Conservative MP 3 years ago and following the suicide of the young activist, the naming of individuals in his suicide note and the involvement of the police, the Conservative party has now launched an investigation and suspended 1 alleged perpetrator.  Further allegations are also said to have been received by the party.

It is therefore timely to consider bullying and harassment in the workplace.  The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic (age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation), which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual’. Bullying is not defined in the law but the most widely quoted description is from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) which describes bullying as ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

Harassment and bullying can result from a single incident or from many.  They can occur during the application and selection process or whilst in employment.  There are also many potential forms, some of which are listed below:

  • Persistent unwanted criticism and/or setting impossible deadlines
  • Coercion for sexual favours
  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Obscene gestures, posters, graffiti, emblems and flags
  • Spying, stalking and other forms of personal intrusion
  • Unwelcome remarks or personal jokes in relation to a person’s real or alleged status, appearance, age, race
  • Sectarian songs
  • Personal insults
  • Isolation, non-co-operation, exclusion or ignoring

As employers and individuals can be ordered to pay unlimited compensation (including compensation for injury to feelings) in relation to discrimination-based harassment and Health and Safety prosecutions, it is therefore an area of concern to many businesses.

So, as an employer, what can you do to ensure that your employees know what constitutes bullying and harassment and that you reduce your exposure to any claims?

Firstly, a good policy which explains what can be construed as bullying and harassment should be put in place.  Within this, the Company should outline the internal route for making any complaints and the potential outcomes for any misconduct found in this area.   This will normally refer to your Company’s disciplinary policy and any serious breach treated as gross misconduct.

Secondly, although a policy is a good first step, it is critical that you do more than just having rules in place for handling issues informally (if possible) and formally (where issues are more serious or the informal process has not satisfactorily resolved the issues).  Employees and line managers need to have had the opportunity to read and understand the policy, you need to have evidence of this and the policy must work on a practical level.  In addition and perhaps most critically, if you commit to doing something in a policy, then you must ensure that this is what you do in practice.

Thirdly, including this policy as part of your induction programme is advisable as is training for managers in identifying issues, challenging inappropriate behaviour and handling any complaints effectively and appropriately.  This should include prompt and thorough investigation, effective evidence gathering, confidentiality, impartiality and working to agreed timescales.

Fourthly, with many complaints not taken seriously by employers or dealt with by them appropriately when raised, you should do as much as you can to encourage awareness of issues (perhaps by refreshing knowledge or publicising weeks such as the one ran last week) and ensuring employees know that they there are routes to gain help and support both internally (such as discussing with their manager unless the manager is the route of the issue and HR for example) and externally (such as access to counselling or mediation).

Fifthly, with the emergence of new technology, employers should also be aware of the new trend in cyber-bullying and ensure that any policies, training sessions and complaints handled also cover electronic or more sophisticated types of bullying and harassment.

Finally, as with any other HR issues at work, as the Conservative party is now discovering, covering up or failing to deal with allegations when they first arise, can often lead to greater problems and bad press to deal with down the line.  In their experience, it is the unfolding of a tragic event which appears to have eventually led to action.  With the strong link between bullying and depression being well-established and this leading on occasion to suicide, this is definitely a worthwhile area for employers to ensure that they are taking complaints seriously and ensuring early intervention.

Navigator regularly advises clients on bullying and harassment issues and Company policies.  It also runs tailored management training programmes in this area.  Please contact us if you would like any assistance or training in this (or any other) HR or employment law matter.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Wendy Meiklejohn

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Are you taking on your first member of staff or wondering if you’re compliant with GDPR, maybe you’re unsure if your HR processes are rigorous enough? Get in touch with Navigator today and see how we can help your organisation.

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EH3 8HA