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What is workplace bullying and are employers required to act?

Article by Kate Palmer, HR Advice & Consultancy Director

It’s Anti-Bullying Week, a national awareness event that encourages consideration into how bullying should be approached and tackled.

Think bullying is something that happens only in the school yard? Think again.

“Banter” is too often used as an excuse to cover up unlawful attitudes and behaviours. Failure to adequately address racist behaviours and creating a culture that does not support diversity and inclusion can prove detrimental for organisations.

Cricketer Azeem Rafiq‘s experiences of racism at Yorkshire Cricket Club has been brought to the nation’s attention recently, highlighting the fact that it is unlawful for an employer not to act.

Employers should use Yorkshire Cricket Club’s response as an example of what not to do and should instead pro-actively communicate acceptable conduct standards, to ensure a culture of equality and inclusivity. Robust policies, staff training and a zero-tolerance stance against racism and discrimination are essential for an effective workforce.

Where complaints about racism are raised, employers should first give the affected person the opportunity to raise a formal grievance. Following this, a full and thorough investigation must be completed to understand all details relating to the situation. This may include gathering witness statements and/or looking at computer records.

Where there is a case to answer to, the person who displayed inappropriate behaviour should be invited to a disciplinary meeting. Depending on contractual policies and procedures and the employee’s explanation for the conduct, employers may be able to move forwards with issuing a warning or dismissing. Notes should be taken at each stage of the process so there is a clear record of all discussions to refer back to if needed.

Bullying correlates strongly with harassment, whereby reason of a protected characteristic an individual creates an intimidating, hostile or degrading environment for another. However, even if the bullying is not related to a protected characteristic it can lead to workplace issues such as grievances, loss of productivity, unauthorised absences, and a breakdown in relationships.

In addition, if the victim raises an issue about the bullying and this is left unaddressed, this could lead to a breakdown in the trust and confidence the employee has in the employer and has the potential to result in a claim of constructive dismissal.

Take the recent case of a Royal Mail manager winning £230k after bullying complaints not addressed, for example.

According to university research, bullying-related absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity costs UK organisations £683 million annually.

Prevention is better than cure, but what do you do if an allegation of bullying comes to your attention?

It is fundamental for a company to be aware of how to deal with allegations of bullying effectively in order to avoid any ramifications such as loss of morale and productivity within the company, or even employment tribunals and other court cases.

Investigations regarding bullying should take place both quickly and impartially. The procedure should be implemented fairly and consistently.

It’s time to act – not only for the good of your workforce, but to protect your business.

    A thought leader on HR and employment law; Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula and the main spokesperson for Peninsula UK. Kate has over 17 years’ experience in all aspects of HR and employment law advice. She develops Peninsula's expert law advisors, ensuring each client gets the answers they need every time they call.

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