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Why bullying can cause even more pain for employers

Why bullying can cause even more pain for employers

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When it comes to employment, bullying is a very complex subject. Not many people throw their weight around physically (which is easy to detect, let's face it), so bullying or harassment is generally taken to be anything that the recipient feels is unwelcome, unwarranted and which causes a detrimental effect. This can mean verbal abuse, humiliation, sexual harassment – and lots more besides.

So, regardless of the type of 'harassment', if an employee complains it is happening to them, it must be formally dealt with because if unchecked or badly handled, it can also spell big trouble for an employer.

Here are some of the downsides – in progressively damaging order – for any organisation that doesn't get on top of harassment:

– Loss of morale
– Negative employee relations
– Loss of respect for the company and managers
– Poor productivity
– Absenteeism and resignations
– Damage to company reputation (especially by social media)
– Difficulty in recruiting
– Legal action and damages with the possibility of unlimited compensation

Whilst most people understand the basic idea of harassment, The Equality Act also covers wider areas. For example, employees – or even clients – are able to complain of behaviour that they find offensive even if it is not directed at them, meaning that a complaint about harassment or bullying towards another person, or another group of people, is legally actionable.

As an employer you have a 'duty of care' for all your employees and if the mutual trust and confidence between your company and an employee is broken through any form of bullying and harassment at work, then an employee can resign and claim 'constructive dismissal' on the grounds of breach of contract.

So, what should you do about bullying and harassment?

First it's vital to put a formal policy in place. Large organisations will have this, but for smaller companies, a simple, basic policy could consist of:

– A statement of commitment from management
– Acknowledgment that bullying and harassment are morally and legally unacceptable
– Some examples of unacceptable behaviour
– A formal statement that bullying and harassment may be treated as disciplinary offences
– The steps the organisation takes to prevent bullying and harassment
– An outline of grievance procedures and timelines

In all cases, any complaint needs to be taken seriously and investigated promptly and objectively – even if it appears to be trivial.

Naturally, any employer should consider all the circumstances before reaching a conclusion and before deciding what action needs to be taken.

The key question, having gathered all the evidence, is "Could what has taken place be reasonably considered to have caused offence?"

The best solution, when reasonably possible, is to try and rectify matters informally. Sometimes people are not aware that their behaviour is unwelcome – constantly swearing and shouting, for example, and this may be dealt with a quiet chat or a mild warning.

Of course, where harassment or bullying is deep seated and prolonged, it points to a serious lack in a company's disciplinary policies and will inevitably lead to legal action sooner rather than later.

Conversely, where a structured and clearly defined harassment policy is in place, everyone feels obliged to understand the implications of their conduct towards one-another. It also helps the company understand its duty of care to their employees. In this regard a well-constructed policy which is made clear to all employees will set the tone and help avoid the majority of serious – and potentially damaging – harassment cases from arising in the first place.