Publish date

5 January 2022

How to deal with workplace bullying and harassment

In an article for People Management, Ben Stepney explains what businesses can do to mitigate the risk of such claims from employees, and how they should respond

There is no legal definition of bullying.  ACAS however define bullying as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that has the effect of making an employee feel frightened, upset, less respected than others or that they are being made fun of. Examples include rumour spreading, being blocked from attending social or networking events, being talked down to, being given heavier workloads than others etc.

Bullying can often become harassment. Harassment occurs if the conduct has the purpose or effect of:

  1. violating the victim’s dignity; or
  2. creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, offensive or humiliating environment for the individual.

To be protected under discrimination laws, an employee must show that the harassment is related to a protected characteristic (race, religion or belief, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment and disability). Examples of harassment include sexual harassment, continuous aggression, bullying, intimidating comments etc.

A 2016 report ‘Still just a bit of banter?’ found that more than half of women in the workplace (nearly two-thirds of women aged 18-24) had experienced sexual harassment at work. The CIPD ‘Managing Conflict in The Modern Workplace’ research found that employees were almost twice as likely to have experienced bullying than non-sexual forms of harassment. This shows these issues are still a serious concern within the workplace and employers should ensure they are on top of any issues.

Bullying and harassment can present itself in many ways and it is important that employers are able to recognise the signs. These can include rejecting invitations to socialise, asking to work from home, taking regular sick leave, producing a lower quality of work, seeming distracted and anxious at work etc. If an employee is showing these signs, it may be prudent to have a private and confidential conversation with them to understand what is happening; it may be non-work related but tackling any issues will help to prevent issues getting worse.

Any complaint raised should be taken seriously. If the issue is not dealt with to the satisfaction of the individual who raised it, the employee may raise a formal grievance later on which may in turn result in a tribunal claim. To defend a claim, employers would have to show that they took all reasonable steps to prevent the person carrying out the act.

Some complaints may be dealt with internally whereas at times it may be appropriate to appoint external investigators (for example where senior staff or managers are the target of the complaint).

Investigators need to be open minded and listen to all parties to the complaint. Initially mediation may be offered where both parties are willing to cooperate and discuss the issue; this could be done internally by an impartial senior staff member or an independent third party may be used. This may be beneficial for less serious complaints. Where complaints are particularly serious more formal procedures should be undertaken, for example a formal investigation and if needed, further action, for example; relocation or disciplinary procedures.

It is important that complaints are dealt with appropriately however, it is equally important that employers mitigate the risk of bullying and harassment in the first instance. Methods of doing so include:

  • Developing a culture of respect and tolerance;
  • Creating a zero tolerance for any inappropriate behaviour and demonstrating this;
  • Anti-bullying and harassment policies;
  • Drawing attention to any policies so employees know that they are available, how to access them and how to follow the advice contained therein;
  • Emailing policies and information to employees when there are going to be staff events (off-site events with alcohol are likely to exasperate any pre-existing harassment/bullying issues);
  • Providing equality and diversity training;
  • Placing emphasis on disciplinary and grievance procedures;
  • Whistle-blowing policies;
  • Offering advice and counselling for those who have witnessed inappropriate behaviour or been the victim;
  • Offering guidance counselling to people whose behaviour is unacceptable. Simply punishing those responsible may not demonstrate why you have taken such action, counselling can help to show the effects their behaviour has on others.

This article first appeared in People Management.

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