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How to deal with bullying and harassment at work as an employer

View profile for Chris Dobbs
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How to deal with bullying and harassment at work as an employer

Workplace bullying has been making the headlines for several months now with employers from the Civil Service to financial services facing accusations.

The issue has really been brought to the front by recent high-profile investigations of government ministers including Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Steve Barclay.

The CIPD reported pre-pandemic that around a quarter of employees think their employers turns a blind eye to workplace bullying and fear of repercussions or being accused of “overreacting” was highlighted as the main reason why employees are reluctant to speak up.

In his latest article, Employment Solicitor Chris Dobbs outlines how employers can deal with bullying and harassment in the workplace.

What is harassment in the workplace?

“Bullying” and “harassment” are often used interchangeably. From an employment law perspective there is a difference between the two which employers should keep in mind.

Bullying has no legal definition, but it can be considered as the deliberate, and often persistent, mistreatment of others in the workplace which may cause either physical or emotional harm. Unless it becomes harassment, it is not by itself strictly unlawful.

Harassment does have a legal definition and, depending on the context, can either be a criminal offence or give rise to a discrimination claim.

Criminal harassment is rare in the workplace, but it does happen and can include stalking, unsolicited and unwarranted contact, or domestic abuse situations which enter the workplace.

What does the Equality Act say?

Under the Equality Act, Section 26 prohibits any unwanted conducted, related to one of the protected characteristics, which violates an individual’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

What behaviour can be considered workplace harassment?

An employee may describe any unwanted behaviour or perceived issues as “harassment”.

While employers should obviously be wary of behaviour which may amount to criminal or discriminatory harassment, the use of the word in its broader sense should not be ignored.

Employees may consider any of the following to be bullying and harassment:

  • Being excluded from a group or ignored by an individual
  • Any unfair treatment which does not amount to discrimination
  • Being undermined or unreasonably criticised
  • Being denied a promotion, pay increase or change in job role

What is the role of a manager in dealing with harassment?

Line managers are often best placed to spot possible situations which may escalate and deal with them early. The first job of managers is to try and prevent these situations from arising by dealing with issues effectively.

However, they can only do this if they are trained to spot signs of harassment and bullying, empowered to take appropriate action, and aware of any problems.

The majority of bullying and harassment situations can be dealt with through informal but effective management intervention.

This may involve a discussion between the relevant parties which identifies a communication issue or a misunderstanding which has led to animosity simply by being unresolved.

What if things escalate?

Where the matter escalates, managers may be involved in formal grievances and/or disciplinary procedures if the situation is more serious.

Related: How to handle Workplace Grievances in 2023

What is a harassment policy in the workplace?

Most employers with appropriate policy documentation will make the same distinction as we have above and their policies relating to harassment will be dealt with under equal opportunities and conduct.

“Bullying” may also be defined in these policies so that the organisation has something to refer to when internal issues arise.

Do you need a bullying and harassment policy?

In short, yes. Bullying and harassment of all kinds should be discouraged if for no other reason than as a matter of best practice.

There are a number of reasons to have such policies in place. Robust policies and procedure:

  • Allow for effective management of workplace harassment and bullying,
  • Provide the tools managers need to tackle incidents of workplace bullying, and
  • Show that the employer is committed to having systems in place to deal with situations before they escalate.

Acts of bullying and harassment can give employees grounds for legal claims.

An employer defending a claim for constructive dismissal or discrimination may be assisted if they can show they have effective policies, staff training and management strategies decided to prevent the conduct happening in the first place.

Read the problem with the statutory defence to discrimination claims here.

What should a harassment policy include?

It is unlikely that your workplace will have a specific harassment policy but reference should be made to bullying and harassment in other documents such as a code of conduct, equal opportunities policy and documentation surrounding disciplinary standards.

These may include:

  • A definition, and examples, of what the organisation considers to be bullying and harassment
  • Clarification of the legal distinction made at the start of this article between the every day meaning or harassment, discriminatory harassment and criminal harassment
  • Guidance on the support process, internal and external, for someone subjected to bullying and harassment
  • An outline of any formal or informal processes employees may wish to follow
  • Advice to managers, or signposting to guidance, on what to do when they suspect bulling or harassment has taken place, or when it is reported to them

It is the case that different employers will have varying standards and so a ‘one size fits all’ policy may not be appropriate in all cases.

Related: How to write strong employment contracts

Can I dismiss someone for harassment at work?

Under your policies, someone who is persistently bullying or harassing someone, or who does so in a particularly unpleasant way, may have committed misconduct.

Failing to meet behaviour standards in this way can be a reason to dismiss an employee.

Remember that a dismissal must be also be procedurally fair and so an employer looking to dismiss someone should ensure that they are aware of the risks of unfair dismissal.

Remember too that one person’s harassment may be another’s exercise of free speech. It is important that you do not dismiss someone for expressing a valid religious belief, for example, just because someone else is upset by their views.

Related Article: Maya Forstater - Transgender discrimination and philosophical belief

When dismissal might be the wrong choice

Alternatively, it may not always be intentional. Management styles which are abrasive can sometimes be seen as bullying by junior staff.

In those situations, dismissal may be an overreaction for a situation where intervention, mediation and training could prove more effective.

Advice from an Employer

Chris Dobbs says: “No employer will fully eradicate the risk of workplace harassment and bullying whether actual or perceived.

The important thing is to have systems in place whereby employees feel able to raise their concerns safely, without the risk of retaliation, and in the knowledge that they will be handled sensitively.

This often means investing in your managers and providing them the resources and skills they need to handle disputes before they escalate.

This starts with effective policies, training on their implementation and regular review to ensure that your approach remains relevant and accessible

Practical, personalised advice early in the process can go a long way to avoiding issues further down the line.”   

Employment Training

At Frettens, our specialist Employment Team offer a host of tailored training courses for employers on a range of topics.

These include disciplinary issues, workplace investigations, discrimination, harassment and much more.

Whether you’re a new or experienced employer, you could benefit from strengthening your skills and knowledge of dealing with HR issues.

Click here to find out more.

Specialist Employment Solicitors

For more tailored advice and assistance with bullying and harassment in the workplace, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our bright Employment Team.

You can call us on 01202 499255, or fill out the form at the top of this page, for a free initial appointment.

You can also subscribe to our newsletter here to receive timely employment updates.

The content of this article, blog or video is not intended as specific legal advice. For tailored assistance, please contact a member of our team.