Employment & HR Department

Harassment in the workplace – What employers need to know?

The recent allegations of sexual harassment highlighted in the news involving high profile individuals from the film industry and also government officials, has emphasised the need for employers to fully understand how to effectively handle and manage any allegations of potential harassment and/or bullying in the workplace.

All employers have a responsibility to promote an atmosphere of tolerance and respect in the workplace and to show a good example to their employees.  They should take steps to address any action that may cause offence or distress and be supportive of any employees who come to them with concerns about unacceptable behaviour.

It is recognised however that this can be a challenging area for management.  Therefore, employers should ensure that they have stringent policies and procedures in place to guide and support both managers and employees.

What is Bullying and Harassment?

Bullying is defined as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour and/or an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic (under the Equality Act 2010), or on other grounds, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.

The Equality Act 2010 makes harassment related to a protected characteristic unlawful.  These are:

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

The Equality Act 2010 does not directly protect the following characteristics but unwanted conduct would amount to harassment related to sexual orientation and sex respectively:

  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity.

Also covered by the Equality Act 2010 is:

  • conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment;
  • less favourable treatment of someone because they submit to, or reject, sexual harassment or harassment related to sex or gender reassignment.

The key factor is that the actions or comments of the accused employee are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient and if not addressed quickly, could lead to the matter escalating.

Such behaviour may be physical, verbal or non-verbal.

Examples of Unacceptable Behaviour

Behaviours deemed to be bullying, harassment or victimisation can take place face to face or through other forms of communication including e-mail, blogs or telephone. Examples can include (but is not limited to) the following:

  • making offensive jokes, using abusive language, slander, sectarian songs
  • spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone
  • copying correspondence that is critical about someone to others who do not need to know
  • isolation, non-co-operation exclusion or marginalisation
  • misuse of power or position
  • unwelcome sexual advances – touching, standing too close, displaying offensive material
  • intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking
  • making threats about job security without foundation
  • deliberately undermining a competent worker by making excessive workload demands and constant criticism
  • failing to safeguard confidential information

This list is neither exhaustive nor exclusive but is intended to give examples of behaviour that is unwarranted, unwelcome and is therefore unacceptable.

How can bullying and harassment be recognised?

Identifying whether bullying or harassment is taking place can sometimes be hard to recognise as the recipient may think ‘perhaps this is normal behaviour in this organisation’. They may be anxious that others will find them weak or not up to the job if they find the actions of others intimidating or offensive.

They may worry they will be accused of overreacting or that they won’t be believed if they do report incidents. Colleagues may also be reluctant to come forward as witnesses as they may fear the consequences for themselves.

If bullying or harassment is not tackled it can create serious difficulties for an organisation including poor morale and employee relations, loss of respect for managers and supervisors, poor performance, absence, resignations and may damage the employer’s reputation. Ultimately, an employer could face an employment tribunal where unlimited compensation may be payable.

It is, therefore, not only the duty of an employer to promote a safe, healthy and fair environment for people to work, where bullying and harassment will not be tolerated, it is also in the employer’s best interests.

Our specialist Employment & HR team can provide assistance with all aspects of managing bullying and harassment in the workplace including drafting and or/reviewing policies and procedures and providing up-to-date training for managers.

If you require any advice in relation to the above or, indeed, any other matter then please do not hesitate to contact our Employment & HR team on 0191 567 0465 or by email [email protected]

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