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Promoting Dignity at Work: Bullying & Harassment
Over the last 18 months I have noticed a marked increase in the number of cases I’ve been asked to deal with that involved alleged incidents of bullying. They’ve arisen in many different forms and most appear to have poor communication or misunderstandings as the root cause. However, I have come across some cases where some individuals have blatantly threatened and abused others in the workplace.

The examples I’ve seen have most often come to a head when:

* Employees are selected for redundancy;
* Employees are tackled about absence or poor performance and complaints arise about their managers when they get a poor appraisal assessment or the disciplinary process is invoked;
* Employees have a new manager with a more ‘hands on’ approach that the previous manager;
* Companies restructure their operations and the employees are not happy with their changed roles;
* Employees misunderstand what is expected of them and the scope of their responsibility;
* Personal abusive relationships have encroached into workplace environments;
* Managers believe that it is OK to use ‘macho’ styles of management – often if they’ve been managed that way themselves;
* Individuals have not understood background circumstances and have completely misread events as a consequence.

What is Bullying & Harassment?
Acas gives very specific definitions of harassment and bullying. But in general, harassment is unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, gender, race, disability, religion or belief, nationality etc. or any other personal characteristic of the individual and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.

Bullying on the other hand, may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse, misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

It may or may not be physical in nature, but often takes the form of unwelcome remarks or personal insults (verbally or by text or email); displaying or circulating offensive images; shouting at others; sidelining or ignoring someone; setting impossible deadlines; or persistent unwarranted criticism etc.

Such behaviour many not be immediately obvious to those not involved and can take a variety of forms. But if it is not witnessed, it can be difficult to prove or disprove!

Joint Responsibility
Tackling bullying and harassment that occurs in the workplace is a joint responsibility of both employee and the employer.

As an employer, you need to ensure that there is a robust policy in place that has been communicated to all staff and managers. Such a policy must clearly state that your organisation has a commitment to promote dignity and respect at work and outline the process to be followed in the event of a complaint. This should tie into your disciplinary and grievance procedures.

All workers have a responsibility for behaving in ways to support non-hostile working environments within their workplace. Employees therefore must be prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour and not be afraid to act as witnesses if they have seen or heard interactions that could be considered as violating the dignity of others.

There are laws relating to discrimination which protect individuals from harassment at work on a variety of grounds. However, there is not one specific piece of legislation that relates to bullying, but a wide array of legal principles may be involved ranging from health and safety responsibilities to the potential of unfair constructive dismissal under the Employment Rights Act (1996.)

Investigating a Complaint
Sometimes complaints can be difficult to investigate if you are work closely with the people involved. In some cases, the alleged perpetrator is not aware that his/ her actions have caused offence and a simple request from the complainant will resolve the problem or alternatively the use of a mediator may help. However, if a formal complaint is made it will need to be investigated objectively and impartially. If you have no-one available within the organisation who can investigate the allegations impartially, you could agree with the complainant that you ask an external consultant to undertake that role.

When deciding who should undertake the investigation, you should be aware that an external investigator can often find it easier to expose the root causes of the problems – particularly where there are issues of misunderstandings or poor communications because they do not make assumptions about the structure of the organisation or personal relationships involved and can ask questions that those from within an organisation will have taken for granted.

Actions Needed
As indicated above, employers should make sure that they have a comprehensive policy and procedure in place to deal with such incidents should they arise. For example, this should explain what constitutes bullying and harassment and give examples. It should explain how to get help and how to deal with such incidents both informally and formally and how the complaint will be investigated and handled.

However, such a policy should also state that if employees bring vexatious or fictitious claims against others that they could be subject to disciplinary action themselves.

Employees need to know about such policies and procedures from the day they start work, so this should be included as part of your induction process and reinforced through staff training as appropriate. Managers should be made responsible for ensuring that the policy enabling dignity at work is implemented.

Being subjected to bullying or harassment can cause high levels of stress, which can in turn lead to increased levels of sickness absence so you may also want to consider providing confidential advice or counselling for staff to help them deal with such situations in a timely manner to reduce that risk.

For further advice on tackling bullying or harassment or any other HR topic contact please get in touch.
Posted on 19 Nov 2016

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