Dealing with Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace

It is important in any workplace that employees are treated with dignity and respect. Nobody should have to work within a hostile environment but, sadly, the organisational culture in some firms permits or even encourages behaviours that can lead to some people feeling intimidated or bullied. Under the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SM&CR), the FCA is placing increased emphasis on non-financial misconduct in firms and encourages firms to foster a positive organisational culture.

Bullying and harassment can take many forms. It could include any of the following:

  • Spreading rumours about a colleague
  • Passing sensitive information about a colleague to others
  • Treating a colleague unfairly
  • Ridiculing a colleague
  • Excluding a colleague
  • Regularly undermining and criticising a competent worker
  • Overloading a colleague with work or ‘setting them up to fail’
  • Making unfounded threats about job security
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate touching or comments

The above could take place in-person, through written correspondence (i.e. notes, texts or emails), over the telephone or via social media (cyberbullying). Bullying and harassment can have a profound impact on the recipient. The effects may include stress and anxiety, a loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, damaged working relationships, resignations, reduced work performance and a ‘toxic’ organisational culture.

A negative organisational culture can also present legal issues for firms. If bullying amounts to the conduct defined as ‘harassment’ under the Equality Act 2010, a complaint can be made to an Employment Tribunal concerning that behaviour.

The Equality Act 2010 defines ‘harassment’ as:

Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, 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.

The relevant protected characteristics are:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Even if a person does not possess the relevant personal characteristic, it is possible that they may still receive bullying or harassment if people wrongly perceive that they do have that characteristic. For example, if someone was perceived to be of a certain religion or race (even if they were not) and was bullied because of this, this would still constitute harassment. This is still the case, even if the bully knew that the victim did not have the personal characteristic but still treated him/her as if he/she did.

A person without one of the personal characteristics may also claim harassment because of their association with a person who does possess the personal characteristic.

Harassment also occurs if a person is subjected to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature (or unwanted conduct related to gender reassignment or sex) and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating that person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person.

It is the responsibility of an employer to prevent and deal with bullying and harassment in the workplace. Employers need to ensure that their employees know that bullying and harassment are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees. If an employee feels they have been bullied or harassed and the employer has not acted and fulfilled this duty of care, and the employee resigns, it is possible the employee could claim constructive dismissal at an Employment Tribunal on the basis of a breach of contract (provided they had worked for the employer for at least two years).

Employers who do not adequately protect the health, safety or wellbeing of their staff may similarly be seen to have breached their contract with their employees. Employers have responsibilities in this area under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

It is wise for organisations of all sizes to produce anti-bullying and harassment policies. These should:

  • Make it clear that bullying and harassment are unacceptable and will not be tolerated
  • Note that bullying and harassment are disciplinary offences
  • Outline steps and procedures for dealing with bullying and harassment
  • Ensure confidentiality for complainants
  • Outline managerial responsibilities in respect of bullying and harassment
  • Ensure the support of senior management towards the policy is made explicit

Fundamentally, organisations should promote working environments where people can work together with mutual respect and dignity.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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