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An Employers Guide to Tackling Bullying and Harassment at Work

An Employers Guide to Tackling Bullying and Harassment at Work

As a recent study reveals half of UK women have been sexually harassed at work, how can a boss handle allegations of harassment or bullying appropriately?

Employers can be hit by serious financial, legal and reputational consequences if they fail to deal properly with such allegations. Poor handling by an employer could potentially result in discrimination claims under the Equality Act (if related to a protected characteristic such as sex or age) or claims for breach of contract, constructive dismissal and negligence (if the behaviour has caused a psychiatric injury to the individual).

Putting procedures in place and correctly managing difficult conversations with the individuals involved is beneficial, not just in the short-term to resolve conflicts, but also in helping to create a more harmonious workplace.

Unfortunately, bullying does not have a legal definition. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) provides useful guidance in its publication “Bullying and Harassment at Work”. It defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”

Harassment is a legally separate concept. In the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 it is defined as behaviour that causes alarm or distress on more than one occasion and in the Equality Act 2010 as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, 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”.

Employers will naturally want to take a zero-tolerance approach when it comes to tackling this kind of behaviour. However, to prevent issues gathering momentum, you should ensure individuals are treated fairly throughout an investigation. So how can employers handle bullying allegations appropriately?

Ensure that your company has a bullying and harassment policy.

A policy stating what behaviour is unacceptable can be helpful when it comes to bullying allegations. Make sure it’s clear, detailed, well-publicised in the workplace and defines what constitutes bullying and harassment. These terms are quite broad so it’s best to cover a variety of behaviours and to include specific examples.

The policy should illustrate what process the organisation will take when dealing with allegations – how an employee can raise a complaint, how it will be investigated and how unacceptable behaviour will be handled (you can use the company’s equal opportunities and grievance policies to detail this). Also be clear you will handle concerns sensitively as knowing that an employer will deal with an employee’s concerns sensitively will encourage those who might be too afraid to come forward.

It is not always possible to give an absolute assurance about confidentiality, so it is important to be clear with anyone involved in a bullying investigation on what they can expect. Anonymised statements can be useful in easing an individual’s worries about their complaints being raised with the accused individual, who will have a right to understand the nature of the complaints against them and to defend themselves.

It is crucial to impress upon everyone involved that they should keep matters confidential and that victimisation or retaliation will not be tolerated. An employer should also keep all involved up to date on progress, understanding that, for reasons of confidentiality, the complainant might not be entitled to know the specific actions taken against the perpetrator.

Ensure that difficult conversations are handled appropriately.

Depending on the circumstances, an informal approach could be the best way to encourage an employee to speak about bullying and allow the accused to speak from their perspective. A formal process can be a daunting prospect for an individual who may already feel isolated and vulnerable.

Offer support.

Managing relationships should be an employer’s priority. Throughout the investigation support should be available to all individuals involved. Mediation can be a great way of healing a relationship between two employees and confidential counselling can offer external support for those finding the situation particularly difficult.
Often it’s also worthwhile focusing on the solution rather than the precise details of the rights and wrongs of the complaint. Sometimes an effective way forward can be simple, such as changing someone’s duties or work location.

Staff turnover, absence, employee performance and morale can all be negatively affected if bullying or harassment in the workplace is not tackled appropriately. That’s why it is important that employers make it their priority to manage allegations properly and to adhere to any legal obligations. This can make these trickier situations easier and help contribute to a more supportive and positive atmosphere in the workplace.

If you would like further information about this or any other aspect of employment law, please contact Chris Wiper on 01325 466461 or email

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