Bullying in the workplace

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Preventing bullying in the workplace should always be a priority for employers. Anti-Bullying Week is taking place in the middle of November. The campaign itself is specifically targeting schools, if you think bullying is an issue that only affects young people, think again.  Earlier this year the results of Bupa’s Workplace Wellbeing Census were released. Out of the 4000 employees it surveyed, more than a quarter of them had experienced bullying in the workplace in the past three years.

That’s a really worrying figure and it goes to show that no employer should ever assume bullying in the workplace isn’t an issue in their company. As an employer, you have what’s known as vicarious liability for the actions of your employees – so you could be held liable for the actions of an employee who’s harassing or bullying someone at work. That could ultimately mean your company ends up in a tribunal.  If an employee feels they have no options left to them other than resigning, you could face a constructive dismissal situation. So it’s vital you have a proper process in place, both to prevent bullying and harassment but also to deal with it effectively if it happens.

Are bullying and harassment the same thing?

It can sometimes get a little confusing to understand exactly what the differences are between bullying and harassment. Basically, bullying is a broad term that describes behaviour from an individual or group that’s unwanted and makes someone feel uncomfortable, frightened, disrespected or made fun of. Further information demonstrating examples of how bullying in the workplace occurs is detailed by ACAS. Those behaviours are typically offensive, malicious, insulting or intimidating and can involve a misuse of power to try to undermine and humiliate someone. Bullying doesn’t have a precise legal definition whereas harassment is more specific where the behaviour relates to a protected characteristic as defined by the Equality Act 2010. ACAS provides further information.

What is the impact on an individual who is subject to bullying and/or harassment?

It only takes one act of bullying or harassment to impact an individual’s mental and physical health. This can result in an individual being upset, stressed, anxious, irritable and as such impact relationships with others including family members.

When an individual suffers as a result of bullying and harassment, their performance will decrease and they may be absent from work.

What is the impact of bullying in the workplace on a company?

When an individual is subjected to bullying and harassment, they may raise a grievance which is absolutely their right to do so, however this takes time to manage. If it identifies a perpetrator, then it’s likely a formal disciplinary hearing will be required, more time out of your day or your manager’s day.

Poor performance can be a result of exposure to bullying and harassment, this, in turn, impacts your customers and mistakes can cost money and time. Further, when an individual is feeling upset, low, stressed and scared as a result of bullying and harassment, this will impact their colleagues. Absence rates will likely increase and more importantly, you could lose experienced and valued employees as a result of bullying and harassment.

What can employers do about bullying in the workplace?

You’ll need to make sure you have taken all reasonable steps to prevent bullying and harassment but also have a process in place for dealing with it appropriately if it did occur.  A bullying and harassment policy is a key part of that, setting out all of the steps that make up your company’s approach. So what are the kinds of things you should include?

First of all, provide examples of behaviours that would be regarded as bullying or harassment. While some forms of bullying and harassment are so obvious that no one would struggle to recognise them, there are instances where it might be far more subtle. Employees should never have the excuse of “I didn’t realise it was upsetting them” and examples will help to make clear what is unacceptable behaviour.

Bullying and harassment policy

The policy must also explain how an employee should go about making a complaint. One important consideration is who it should be made to. If at all possible, there should be some choice over who the employee contacts in case they feel unable to raise their concerns with a particular person because of that person’s relationship with the alleged perpetrator or, even worse if that person is the perpetrator.

The policy must also outline what will happen once the complaint is made. It’s really important that any complaint is acted on swiftly and sensitively. It should start with an in-depth conversation with the employee raising the complaint to understand the nature of the problem and agree a way forward. It’s obviously also important to talk to the person being accused to understand their perspective. It might be the case that it’s possible to resolve the complaint informally. But it might also become apparent that a more formal approach is needed within the grievance process framework, with a full investigation and potential disciplinary action.

Make sure you regularly review, communicate and train employees in your bullying and harassment policy so everyone is aware of their obligations, and knows what’s expected of them.

Managing the new challenges presented by remote working

An additional challenge comes from the fact that the definition of “being in work” is now a lot more flexible. As remote working becomes more commonplace, it’ll have knock-on effects on how companies manage issues such as bullying and harassment. You might think that they should become less of a problem, but that might not be the case. The Bupa survey highlighted that more cases of bullying could end up being missed. And employees might feel more isolated and cut off from people who could help them which makes the problem worse.

If you’re facilitating more remote working in your business, then make sure you’re thinking about what else needs to be factored into your approach and mentioned in your policy. You might want to broaden the list of examples of behaviours to things such as deliberately omitting someone from team group chats, or sending unpleasant emails or messages. You’ll also need to think about the most suitable way to hold the meetings and investigations that will need to take place in response to any complaints.

Do you need more support?

You’ll find more information available from Acas. If you need any support with creating a policy on bullying and harassment, or guidance dealing with a situation that’s already arisen in your company, we can help you. Don’t forget we can also act as an independent point of contact where bullying and harassment complaints can be directed too. So please do get in touch with us to find out how we can support you with managing any issues you have relating to bullying and harassment or any other HR challenges you’re dealing with.

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