Bullying and Harassment
Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace
Employers are required to take steps to protect employees from bullying and harassment in the workplace. There are various definitions of both bullying and harassment.
Bullying in the workplace tends to be more subtle than ‘schoolyard’ bullying but is nonetheless still serious. Bullying tends to consist of constantly mistreating an individual – and the perpetrator need not be a co-colleague, it can be a manager or even the employer themselves.
Bullying is categorised as:
- Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour;
- Misuse of power through undermining, humiliating, denigrating or injuring
- Physical or verbal abuse
- Regularly being treated unfairly by being given excessive work
- Unfounded criticism and misplaced blame
Harassment is conduct in relation to a ‘protected characteristic’ (under discrimination law) which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.
Both bullying and harassment are not characterised as happening face-to-face only. In a world where technology is used as part of our everyday lives, bullying and harassment can occur via phone or email communications, using and sending photographic images (sexual or embarrassing photos) and through supervision methods such as the recording of telephone conversations if this is not applied universally to all employees.
The employee handbook is a good place for employers to set out what constitutes bullying and harassment. Sometimes what is considered bullying by one person is considered firm management by another but there are grey areas and it is good practice for employers to address these matters by identifying what would contribute towards a negative working environment and should be avoided and further what they would consider to amount to bullying and harassment. Employers may wish to identify some examples of unacceptable and inappropriate behaviour, for example:
- Spreading rumours;
- Insulting a person’s religion or belief or sexual orientation;
- Setting a person up to fail and ridiculing or demeaning them in front of others;
- Unwelcome sexual advances such as touching or asking for sexual favours;
- Threatening job security without foundation.
It is in every employer’s interest to promote a fair, safe and healthy work environment. The employers business can suffer as a result of underlying negative employee relations and poor morale. If bullying and ill treatment is allowed to foster employee performance and productivity will suffer as a result. Employees may be unable to face coming to work resulting in increased absences and resignations and may even cause damage to the company reputation. Thus we can see the negative impacts of bullying and harassment in the workplace are far reaching and can result in a spin-off of troubles for the employer.
The first step an employer should take in minimising the chances of workplace bullying or harassment is to formulate and implement a policy so that employees know that this will not be tolerated and that senior management are committed to working against such behaviour. A complaints procedure should be outlined in the employee handbook so that employees feel supported and know who to approach under such circumstances.
A failure to protect employees from harassment and bullying may result in employers being held vicariously liable for the actions of other employees towards the victim and may also result in constructive dismissal. Further, claims for personal injury can also arise where the employee has suffered psychological damage since bullying can affect the emotional wellbeing of the victim. It is not possible for a complaint to be made directly for bullying to the Employment Tribunal unless it constitutes harassment i.e. it is bullying regarding a ‘protected characteristic’. Therefore employers should be on the look-out for workplace bullying and be vigilant in their no-tolerance stance.
Coinciding with the complaints procedure it can be useful to have a work related stress assistance system whereby employees who feel they suffer from work related stress can communicate their concerns to a senior member of staff to try to tackle the difficulties faced. It is not a far cry to suggest that those suffering work related stress may take their frustration out on others in the workplace and though this is no excuse, it may be an underlying contributing factor.
There are various concerns for the employer in circumstances of bullying and harassment. In particular, there is a minefield of legislation regulating the employers’ duties. For example, when an employer needs to discipline the perpetrator of the bullying or harassment but ultimately the employer has no other option but to dismiss the employee then they may be concerned with the consequences and the likelihood of an unfair dismissal claim. Conversely, they may be concerned that disciplining but continuing the perpetrators employment may result in a claim for constructive dismissal because the victim feels that the employer is not doing enough to protect them and they feel that they have no option but to quit and claim unfair dismissal. Bullying can amount to gross misconduct in certain circumstances and so summary dismissal may be justified, but there are various factors for employers to consider.
Advice from employment law specialists can be invaluable in such circumstances. At John Carruthers Solicitors and Solicitor Advocates we offer a full employment law service and are happy to advise you on all your concerns, including workplace bullying and harassment.