Every employer has experienced bullying and harassment concerns in one way or another. Whether it’s for yourself, someone you know, or between colleagues in your workplace, we must all be accountable to end workplace bullying and harassment.
No one is immune, as we’ve seen with the recent allegations from Buckingham Palace, but how we deal with such allegations is fundamental for good employee and employer relations. We spend such a large portion of our day at work and there is nothing more demoralising than when bullying or harassment goes unchecked.
We should be learning from every issue that arises as part of our continuous aim to protect employees from harm and promote dignity and respect for everyone in the workplace.
Allegations of Bullying or Harassment
Bullying or harassment is an extremely serious allegation which must always be addressed straight away. Yet many managers assume this issue does not exist in their department, but this is often because no one has spoken up. The belief that bullying and harassment do not happen in your business is possibly the biggest barrier to tackling the problem.
Many employees may be reluctant to report instances of bullying and harassment out of fear of damaging working relationships with their colleagues or retaliation, embarrassment, or worry they may be perceived as a troublemaker. Sometimes an employee will mention an issue they are having with another colleague, but nothing happens making them hesitant to report further concerns.
No matter the reason a concern is not formally raised, employers still have an implicit duty of care which require them to investigate all alleged concerns without delay.
It is important for managers to bear in mind that not receiving complaints does not mean no bullying or harassment is taking place.
What is Bullying?
There is no legal definition on bullying, but most organisations would look to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service when looking for guidance.
The ACAS would define bullying as behaviour that is:
- Offensive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting
- An abuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate, or injure.
These actions will inevitably erode the victim’s confidence and self-esteem. Bullying typically relates to negative behaviours that are repeated and persistent and are deliberately targeted at a particular individual. Bullying in the workplace is often an abuse of power, position, or knowledge, and it may be perpetrated by the victim’s manager, peers, or even subordinates.
How is it Different from Harassment?
Although bullying and harassment can look similar on the surface, there are important distinctions between the two. All bullying physically or emotionally hurts, harms, or humiliates an individual. But when bullying behaviour is based on a protected class, we then define this action as harassment. Employers should be aware of this difference, as harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination and has a legal definition of:
[dt_sc_pullquote type=”pullquote6″ align=”center” icon=”yes”]“Unwanted conduct related to a 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.”[/dt_sc_pullquote]
Specifically, harassment is unlawful if it relates to one of the protected characteristics of:
- Race – including colour, nationality, ethnic, or national origin
- Sex – including gender reassignment, sexual orientation, or pregnancy
- Disability or is disability related
The right to not be harassed at work extends to all individuals, so agency temps, casual staff, and contractors are protected.
It should be noted that this definition uses the phrase ‘purpose or effect’ which means an act doesn’t have to be a deliberate, it’s the outcome or how it is received that counts. A defence of “I didn’t mean to cause offence” is not valid.
Employees can make a harassment complaint even if the behaviour in question is not directed at them. This is possible because the complainant does not actually need to possess the relevant protected characteristic. An employee is able to submit a complaint of unlawful harassment if they have experienced harassment:
- Because they are related to, or associated with, someone who possesses a relevant protected characteristic
- By a colleague who has the mistaken perception that they possess a relevant protected characteristic
General banter linked to sex, race, sexual orientation, or age is the most common form of harassment in employment. Managers should make sure their staff are correctly informed of the types of conduct and speech that can cause offence to others and make it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable.
The basic rule for all workplaces should be that any jokes, remarks, or banter that might cause offence to another employee on any grounds will not be permitted. Employees should be encouraged to understand that their colleagues will have differing views and feelings on certain matters, as well as differing levels of sensitivity.
It should be a requirement in every department that employees treat their colleagues with dignity and respect, and refrain from any behaviour that may cause harm.
Aside from the morale and social issues, employers are liable in law for any acts of harassment perpetrated by their staff in the course of employment. The extent of which has been interpreted widely by tribunal.
For example, harassment that takes place during a work-related social event organised by the business may create liability for the employer. Employers are still liable whether the act of harassment was done with their knowledge or approval or not. The fact that management did not know harassment was occurring does not provide a defence. A lack of intention to offend will similarly not provide a route for the employer to escape liability.
Beyond the employer, individual staff members may also be held liable if they were personally responsible for harassing the person who has complained. The tribunal has the authority to order one or more individual employees to personally pay compensation to their victim. This order is in addition to any compensation that the employer may be required to pay.
Although there is no legal definition of bullying, and employees cannot bring a tribunal claim for bullying alone, it is still an extremely serious matter. Victims of bullying can experience stress and anxiety that lead to absences from work and other related problems.
While individuals will suffer the primary effects of bullying, employers can also see repercussions in the form of:
- Poor employee relations
- Divided teams
- Loss of respect for managers
- Poor performance
- Resignation and high turnover
- Damage to company reputation
- Constructive/unfair dismissal litigation
- Personal injury claims
There are many business-related reasons to get this right, but the most important should always be because every employee has the right to feel safe at work. Keeping this fact at the centre of your bullying and harassment policies will ensure that your staff are comfortable and confident in the workplace.