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Bullying and Harassment at Work

On the 20th November 2020 it became widely known that an internal government report had concluded that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel had breached the Ministerial Code by bullying staff at the Home Office. Recently it was also national anti-bullying week (16 – 20th November 2020).  Small children to grown adults know when they have been bullied and harassed, without ever having to read a legal definition of the words.  It is certainly something we can all relate to at some point in our lives.  Just like schools it is not unusual to find employees who are bullied/harassed at work. 

Bullying and harassment can have a number of impacts on an individual and can lead to time off work and considerable stress for the victim.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website states that during the 2019/2020 period there were 32.5 million days lost as a result of work-related ill health including stress at work.

This article considers how bullying and harassment can affect the workplace and possible solutions.

Employers have a legal obligation, to ensure the health and safety of staff at the workplace.  Obviously, such a legal obligation and employer responsibilities can manifest in different ways, however in the context of bullying and harassment, it would be a priority to focus on alleviating any environment that was causing stress or anxiety as a result of the bullying/harassment. 

What is Bullying?

There is no legal definition of bullying but given that at one stage or another in our lives we would have either experienced such actions or behaviour or know of someone that has been bullied.  We would all be able to recognise it when we see it, it is those actions which violate our personal dignity and peace of mind.

The Cambridge English dictionary definition of bullying is:

“the behaviour of a person who hurts, or frightens someone smaller or less powerful, often forcing that person to do something they do not want to do.”

The national bullying helpline definition is:

“the behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that is intended to hurt another individual or group, either physically or emotionally”

What is Harassment?

In law (under S26 of the Equality Act 2010) harassment is defined as:

“Any unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, or creating a hostile, humiliating, degrading, or offensive environment” on the grounds of one of the nine protected characteristics, e.g age, race, disability, sex (gender discrimination) or be of a sexual nature, sexual orientation, religion/belief or nationality.

Bullying would also be included in harassment if it relates to unwanted conduct on the basis of a protected characteristic for example.

In today’s world of work, cultural and accepted norms have now changed and evolved over time and there is more awareness amongst employees that they do not have to tolerate unacceptable behaviour from work colleagues or managers. This means that the publicity around the #metoo movement against sexual harassment, and a greater awareness of the effects of stress and anxiety and the ongoing process of the removal of stigma related to mental health issues are resulting in a change. This is particularly the case in the workplace where proactive employers are taking action to ensure that bullying and harassment in the workplace will not be tolerated, and employees more aware of their rights are taking action to enforce their rights or publicly shame their employers.

In order to prevent any potential constructive unfair dismissal claims, discrimination claims and or sickness absences, businesses, should be proactive in having robust policies and procedures in place to deal with any bullying and harassment issues.  Staff grievances have the potential of taking up considerable amounts of management time, which if kept in check frees up time to focus on other aspects of your business.

Employers when investigating any allegations of bullying and harassment need to realise that it will be an insufficient defence for the perpetrator of the bullying to state that they “didn’t mean it or intend” the effect of the bullying.

An employment tribunal will decide if there has been harassment based on the test of whether the harassment had the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, creating a hostile, intimidating, humiliating, degrading or offensive environment for that person. They will also consider the perception of the victim and whether it is reasonable for the bullying and harassment to have had that effect, given the other circumstances of the case.

So how can employers be proactive in ensuring workplaces are bullying and harassment free? Some solutions are as follows:

Employer Solutions

1. Policies

Ensure that policies and procedures in the company handbook are up to date. Further, that you have an equal opportunities, grievance, disciplinary, anti-bullying and harassment policy. The policies should make clear what the standard of behaviour is expected from employees and potential consequences of breaching the standards expected. Furthermore, the harassment policy should set out how the allegations will be dealt with, and what the potential consequences are. The policy should also deal with bullying or harassment on social media or other forms of online harassment.

2.  Training Managers

Regular training of managers and employees will enable Managers will be able to undertake fair and transparent grievance meetings and appeals, and deal with issues sensitively and appropriately.

Investigations are to be carried out properly and promptly, managers should consider the intention of the conduct in question but also the perception of the person who made the allegation.

3.  Workplace Culture

Ensure that employees know that bullying and harassment is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

The culture should be led from the top down and at all levels of the business or organisation the principles of fairness and equality should be applied.  

Employee Support Solutions

If you have been bullied and harassed there are several steps that you can take, including:

•             Seek help and support from your GP and anti-bullying helpline and support websites.

•             Raise your concerns and speak with a work colleague.

•             Talk to your Union representative if you belong to a union.

•             Put your concerns in writing to your employer in a grievance letter and set out the outcome you would like.

•             Call ACAS or look at their website as to your next steps.

•             Keep a note with dates and times of any bullying incidents and if there are witnesses note who else was present.

•             Seek legal advice at an early stage of things so that you can be fully informed of your rights and options. Time limits for making a claim in the Employment Tribunal are short and so it is important not to delay in getting advice.

To Conclude

The benefits of having a good workplace culture that does not tolerate bullying and harassment are huge. Aside from preventing problems and potential compensation for Employment Tribunal claims it will ensure that you have a work environment that attracts the best talent, retains staff and ensures that staff are happy, productive and able to focus during work time.

For further help and advice on any such issues or other employment law issues please contact RELA Team who will be happy to help with a free initial no obligation call.

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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