information/top tipWorkplace Bullying and Harassment: guidance for employers

This blog will help employers understand how to recognise workplace bullying, what to do if an employee raises an issue about bullying or harassment, and actions to take.

It is important to know where the law stands, especially following Boris Johnson’s reaction and Priti Patel’s subsequent apology:

“I am sorry that my behaviour in the past has upset people. It has never been my intention to cause upset to anyone.”

The internal government report covered by the BBC here found that Priti Patel, Home Secretary had breached the Ministerial Code, bullying and harassing staff when working at the Home Office.

If any employee feels they are being or have been treated unfairly for blowing the whistle, they are legally entitled to raise this issue with their employer through a formal grievance. It remains important to maintain open avenues for complaints which are supported by all industries.

If you have any workplace employment law questions, contact our experts by email here for a free no-obligation conversation.

Bullying itself is not against the law; however harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 here. The guidance below covers the differences between the two behaviours.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is any form of behaviour that can make an individual feel:

  • intimated, fearful of going to work
  • less respected in your role, degraded
  • made fun of, uncomfortable
  • insulted or offended.

Examples can be if someone spreads false/malicious rumours about a colleague, someone is demeaning another in meetings, an employer is denying a specific employee training or promotion opportunities that others are receiving, a worker is receiving unfair treatment in terms of workload, a team is excluding someone from social events etc.

This bullying behaviour can:

  • be a regular pattern or a one-off incident
  • be face-to-face, on calls, or online including in emails, social media posts etc.
  • happen in the workplace, in virtual meetings or at work organised social events
  • not always be plainly obvious, witnessed or noticed by others.

What is workplace harassment?

Harassment is when the unwanted behaviours mentioned above have the purpose or effect or violating the individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them. Behaviour relates to one of the following, known legally as ‘protected characteristics’:

  • Gender reassignment.
  • Marriage and civil partnership.
  • Pregnancy and maternity.
  • Religion or belief.
  • Sexual orientation.

With harassment, the impact and effect of the treatment on the individual is a key consideration; it is irrelevant whether the alleged harasser intended for their conduct to have the impact it has on the victim.

The milestone tribunal decision here regarding transgender employee Ms Taylor and Jaguar Land Rover offers a warning for employers which fail to support non-binary employees.

What can employers do?

As the employer, you should have a policy on workplace bullying/harassment, which details how this behaviour will be handled, both informally and formally. Any procedures related to workplace bullying should also be detailed in each employee contract for them to refer to in such a scenario. Treat such policies as essential to business operations. Ensure they are regularly reviewed, communicated and understood across the business. Training needs should be identified and actioned as soon as possible.

If there is no such policy available, it will still be your responsibility as the employer to address the issue as employers have a legal duty of care to protect all employees whilst they are at work. This includes work-related social events, meetings etc. Dealing with bullying issues, and protecting staff from harassment is included in this legal duty of care.

First, you should always try to resolve the issue with an informal meeting. You should listen to what an employee has to say and let them explain what they would like to happen, and you should also detail your position including steps forward, procedures and policies etc. It is best to find a solution that works for both parties in the first instance to avoid any following formal procedures – which could happen if the matter escalates.

You should keep a written record of how you dealt with this problem, even if it was informal. Any next steps should be made clear, specific and measurable. A follow up with the employee should also be organised and executed efficiently.

What can happen otherwise?

When an employee raises a bullying and/or harassment problem informally, it should be taken seriously. It is important to maintain a good working relationship with the employee. If the issue is not handled accordingly, the employee can make the decision to raise the matter in a formal way, as a grievance.

Failure to deal with a complaint of bullying and/or harassment may be deemed as a breach of the mutual duty of trust and confidence which is implied in the employer/employee relationship. This may entitle an employee to leave their job and pursue an employment tribunal claim detailed by ACAS here for constructive unfair dismissal.

Aside from the potential risk of being taken to an employment tribunal, failure to deal with employee complaints about the way they have been treated at work may impact on the reputation of your business. Also, this is likely to have a negative impact on employee engagement and morale.

Raising the issue

If a workplace bullying issue cannot be resolved informally through internal discussions, an employee can raise the issue formally, known as a formal grievance as described here.

If raising a formal grievance does not resolve the problem,employees can make a claim by following these steps with an employment tribunal.

What about whistleblowing or ‘blowing the whistle’?

Whistleblowing is when someone reports suspected wrongdoing or dangers. It is also known as ‘making a protected disclosure’. These could stem from possible health and safety rule breaches or suspected criminal activity, but can also extend to raising concerns about a failure to comply with legal or regulatory obligations.

The Employment Rights Act 1996 provides significant protection for whistleblowers. This includes the right not to be subjected to detriments due to reporting wrongdoing, and not to be dismissed as a direct result of raising such concerns.

The above information provides guidance and in all situations relating to bullying and harassment, specific legal advice should be taken regarding your particular circumstances. Contact our team for advice by email or call us for a free conversation about your situation.

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