Publish date

30 July 2021

Why having robust anti-bullying and harassment policies is so important for charities

Now, more than ever, the need for a diverse and inclusive workplace is clear. In fact, a strong diversity and inclusion strategy can help your business attract top talent and drive innovative results.

But one threat to the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce is harassment and bullying in the workplace. Harassment and bullying remain significant issues despite increasing awareness of the problem.

Furthermore, these issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. A study by the British Medical Journal (the BMJ) has shown that the pandemic has triggered a social crisis marked by discriminatory behaviours and stigma against people perceived as suspected to have, diagnosed with or who have survived the virus.

It is vital that charities do all they can to prevent bullying and harassment from happening in the first place, and if they are made aware of any claims of bullying by colleagues, that they act swiftly to put a stop to it. This is not only key in protecting all employees, but in protecting a charity’s reputation too. Headlines in the press about St John’s Ambulance having a ‘pervading culture of bullying’ demonstrate just how damaging such claims can be to the reputations of well-known organisations.

What is harassment?

In the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010), harassment has a specific meaning: ‘unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, 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’. It does not matter if someone never intended to violate and individual’s dignity. If their actions were careless or reckless and had the same effect, then the victim can still make a claim.

The definition of harassment specifies that the conduct needs to relate to a protected characteristic. Examples of recognised characteristics include a person’s age, disability, gender (including gender reassignment), race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. Harassment which is unrelated to a protected characteristic isn’t covered by the Act.

More generally, harassment types can include (but is not limited to): spoken words, banter, written words, social media posts, imagery, graffiti, physical gestures, facial expressions, aggression and physical behaviour.

What is bullying?

The UK legal position on bullying is more complex as there’s no single piece of legislation which deals with workplace bullying. Acas says bullying may be characterised as: ‘Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’.

Unlike harassment, bullying does not need to relate to a protected characteristic and can cover other things. A study by the Trades Union Congress (the TUC), found that 52% of long-covid sufferers had suffered some form of discrimination or bullying as a result of their condition.

Similarly, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen the emergence of ‘furlough bullying’, where workers on or returning from furlough are viewed as being different from other workers and their productivity is questioned in a them and us furlough bullying culture.

What can employers do?

As an employer, it is important to be aware of these issues and support employees who experience bullying or harassment. This includes the more obvious and legally required health and safety measures, but also more subtle processes that will help everyone feel comfortable and supported.

Some tell-tale signs of bullying include:

  • An employee’s job performance deteriorating for no apparent reason;
  • A gregarious employee becoming withdrawn;
  • An employee calling in sick regularly;
  • An employee consistently sitting far away each from another employee during in-person meetings.

Employers should have in place an anti-harassment and bullying policy that clearly states the company’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work. These should be regularly reviewed and brought to the attention of all staff. Law firms can assist in drafting these policies.

They should also consider having a confidential reporting system, so as not to deter employees from speaking out, out of fear of reprisals from colleagues, senior management or the stigma of not being a team player.

Employers should regularly assess and take steps to reduce the risk of bullying and harassment in the workplace. This can include, but is not limited to, regularly engaging staff through surveys, mandating education and training and taking legal advice where necessary.

As always, it is important that you take any incident of bullying seriously and consider taking expert legal advice. Please get in touch if you need advice on any element of bullying and how to combat it.

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