It’s Anti-Bullying Week in the UK, from 16 to 20 November, but bullying goes beyond school and can happen in the workplace.
Bullying in the workplace is still a significant issue for many businesses and organisations, despite increasing awareness of its existence.
There are various legal aspects to workplace bullying and harassment, which is why having the right HR advice and support can be critical in addressing and resolving these issues.
What is Workplace Bullying?
TUC research suggests that nearly a third of people are bullied at work. A UNISON survey has 60% of its respondents reporting that they had either experienced or witnessed bullying in the workplace.
But what is workplace bullying?
Under the Equality Act the definition of bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Bullying, whilst highly questionable and immoral behaviour that any fair employer would not condone, is not illegal. Harassment, however, is against the law.
Behaviour that amounts to bullying can include:
- Unfair treatment
- Picking on someone
- Denying them opportunities for training or promotion
- Spreading malicious rumours
Bullying can become harassment if this behaviour relates to certain aspects of someone’s life, such as their age, race, sexuality, partnership status or religious beliefs. These are protected characteristics.
What are the Responsibilities of Employers and Employees?
Employers should have clear guidance for all staff about bullying and harassment. They should explain and emphasise their company’s commitment to promoting respect and dignity in the workplace.
It is also worth noting that these values extend to anywhere that work-related activities happen, including remote sites, workplace events and outings. If harassment takes place in any of these situations, you can still find yourself liable.
It is important, therefore, that you can demonstrate the reasonable steps you have taken to prevent bullying and harassment.
All employees in your business or organisation have an individual responsibility to behave in ways that support a tolerant environment at work, and one that is inclusive of everybody. There are legal implications otherwise. Under criminal or civil law, employers and individuals may find themselves vulnerable to a potential tribunal claim and having to pay compensation to victims of harassment that is discrimination-based.
An employer might not know that bullying and harassment is taking place, but this does not stop them from the law holding them responsible. Having a robust equality policy and promoting whistleblowing can help create a more open working environment where employees feel they can approach senior management when they feel they have been bullied or witnessed it.
Why Bullying Has Consequences for Business
Not only is the employer liable for any harassment that employees suffer during the course of their work, but it can have wider, long-reaching implications.
Bullying and harassment can have a negative effect on the overall culture of a workplace, spreading out like ripples. This has an impact on staff morale, on how people work together, and ultimately, on productivity.
In an age where people will very publicly air their grievances through social media channels, you may face extended reputational damage if you don’t deal with bullying effectively.
What is the Impact of Cyber Bullying?
Cyber bullying has grown along with internet and social media use, and employees are far from immune to it.
In the workplace, it can take various forms, such as offensive or threatening emails, comments and posts about others on social media sites and spreading lies and malicious gossip via chat and texts.
With the rise of remote working and working from home, people may become more exposed to workplace cyber bullying, and may feel more isolated and vulnerable at the same time.
The legal implications of workplace harassment apply in the digital world just as they do when people are sharing a physical workspace.
Recognising and Managing Bullying at Work
It is not always easy to recognise bullying in the workplace, especially if people suffering from it are reluctant to speak out about it.
This comes back to the importance of openly stating and reinforcing what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.
Employers should be fostering a positive, open and supportive workplace culture, where employees feel confident that they can speak up about bullying.
Senior management should openly commit to tackling bullying, and, where there is a problem, employers should be clear in acknowledging this.
It is only by being transparent and accepting that the problem exists that employers can begin to tackle it effectively.
Managing bullying can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but it is important to follow a clear set of processes and procedures.
Measures for managing bullying include counselling and mediation. If criminal behaviour has taken place, then the police will need to be involved.
Often, employers or their representatives can resolve issues informally through these means, but if accusations of bullying or harassment warrant a formal investigation, it is vital to follow through with this.
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