How employers can deal with bullying

Employers have a duty to protect their employees from bullying, harassment and discrimination - not only on moral grounds, but legal grounds too. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are responsible for the health and safety at work of all of their employees.

Bullying and harassment, if they're ignored or badly handled, can create serious problems for a business, including lost productivity, absence and poor performance. In the worst case scenario, your staff could take you to an employment tribunal where you could end up paying them an unlimited amount of compensation.

What is bullying and harassment in the workplace?

An employee can feel threatened by insulting or offensive behaviour from another employee, or feel that they're being taken advantage of. They may also feel humiliated or demoralised. Common forms of bullying are physical violence (or violent gestures), continuous taunting (i.e. verbal abuse) and public humiliation,

Harassment on the grounds of sex, including sexual harassment, is prohibited by law and is viewed as direct discrimination. Employees who are being harassed may feel that they are discriminated because of their sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, age and religion or other belief. They may feel that their dignity is being violated and the atmosphere may be hostile, degrading and offensive for them. Common forms of harassment are offensive jokes, physical contact or sexual advances that are unwelcome, sexual or racial abuse, or abuse concerning sexual orientation, disability, or religion or other belief.

It's good practice for employers to detail in writing the grievance and disciplinary procedures for unacceptable behaviour in their Staff Handbook. To easily create a grievance and disciplinary procedure for your business, buy our Staff Handbook. Alternatively, our Staff Handbook can be found in our Employment Contracts Kit, along with various full-time, part-time and domestic employment contracts for you to use.

What should employers do about bullying and harassment?

Firstly, employers should frame a formal policy on bullying and harassment. You, as an employer, can include it in other personnel policies, but if you create a standalone document, it should outline the following:

  • A clear statement that the firm will not tolerate bullying and harassment, and that senior management is committed to stamping out discrimination. Include the responsibilities and training of managers regarding this issue.
  • Examples of unacceptable behaviour.
  • An acknowledgment that bullying and harassment are problems for the company.
  • The steps the company takes to prevent bullying and harassment.
  • A statement that bullying and harassment may be treated as disciplinary offences.
  • A statement that any complainant will receive confidentiality and will be protected from discrimination.
  • A reference to the grievance procedures (informal and formal), including timescales for acting on them.
  • A similar statement, including timescales, about investigation procedures.
  • Details on how the company's policy on bullying and harassment will be implemented, reviewed and monitored.

Your business should also have policies and procedures for dealing with grievance and disciplinary matters - even if it's a small business - and your employees should know who they can turn to if they have a problem with bullying or harassment. Set out, in writing, to your employees the grievance and disciplinary procedures that will take affect. Our Staff Handbook details both procedures, or our Staff Handbook can be found in our Employment Contracts Kit, which includes a collection of employment contracts and expert guidance on how to use them.

Employers should deal with complaints promptly and when the complaint is formally discussed, as part of the grievance procedure, the complainant, and the subject of the complaint, can be accompanied by a fellow employee or trade union representative of their choice.

It's important that you, as an employer, stress that if an individual does complain about bullying or harassment, the complaint will remain confidential. Employees will be reluctant to come forward if they feel that they won't receive a sympathetic ear from their employers or they will be confronted by the person they are complaining about.

Secondly, set a good example and make sure that your behaviour, as an employer, isn't too bullish. Try to create a company where communication is important and consult your employees often. If you stay away from an authoritarian style, then this should lessen the chances of bullying and harassment. You could also send a statement to all staff setting out what standards you, as an employer, expect and stress that bullying, harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated.

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Published on: June 2, 2008

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