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Handling Workplace Harassment

Harassment is in the spotlight again. This time in relation to the conduct of MPs. There has been speculation over improper handling of claims which has highlighted the issue of how bullying and harassment should be handled in the workplace.

If harassment or bullying is reported to the employer, or if the employer suspects that harassment or bullying is taking place, it is important that it is treated seriously, not only because of potential Employment Tribunal claims, but because employers have a duty of care to those that work for them to take all steps which are reasonably possible to ensure their health, safety and wellbeing. If handled improperly or not handled at all, it may lead to employees becoming less satisfied in their work, losing faith in their employer and becoming stressed, anxious or depressed.

The law protects individuals from harassment while applying for a job, in employment and in some circumstances after the working relationship has ended (in relation to references, for example) and not just during the employee’s employment.

What is harassment and bullying?

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as ‘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’.

Bullying is not specifically defined in UK law but Acas’ advice leaflet states that 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’.

The question is often asked whether banter is just that or if it will be considered as bullying. To put it simply, if banter is in any way discriminatory, or if an employee is offended by certain comments or behaviour, then it may be considered as harassment and bullying and not banter. Therefore, if in doubt as to whether comments or actions may offend, refrain from doing so.

How can it be prevented?

Policy - Ensure that you have an anti-harassment and bullying policy which clearly communicates the fact that the company will not tolerate harassment and bullying and the process to follow should they experience it.

Communication - The policy should be communicated to all staff so that they are aware of the company’s commitment to creating a harmonious environment where everyone is treated with dignity and respect and so that they know that any allegations will be taken seriously and dealt with appropriately.

Training – Those with management responsibilities should be given performance management training which should include equality and diversity, basic HR and employment law training so that they are fully aware of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and bullying and harassment and how to handle it effectively should it occur.

Culture – Of equal importance to the values contained within the policy and communicated in the training is the company culture. The workplace should be free from comments, language, actions or behaviour which may cause offence.  There should be a respectful, inclusive and open atmosphere and employees should be made to feel that they will be supported if they feel uncomfortable about anything.

How must allegations of harassment and bullying be handled?

All complaints should be dealt with promptly. Less serious claims may be dealt with informally as a first measure. In minor cases it may be sufficient for the recipient of harassment to raise the problem with the perpetrator; pointing out the unacceptable behaviour. But if an employee finds this difficult or embarrassing, procedures should enable support from a colleague, an appropriate manager or someone from HR. A senior figure unconnected with the claim should handle the matter. More serious allegations should be handled formally from the outset and – depending on the circumstances -  it may be necessary to suspend the alleged perpetrator on full pay.

Employers should always make a record of complaints and investigations. These should include the names of the people involved, dates, the nature and frequency of incidents, action taken, follow-up and monitoring information.

Where a complaint is upheld, it may be necessary to relocate or transfer one of those involved to another part of the organisation. It should not automatically be the complainant who is expected to move, but they should be offered the choice where practical. Where an employee is transferred, no breach of contract must occur or a claim of constructive unfair dismissal could arise.