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The plague of ‘invisible’ bullying

For organisations that ignore invisible bullying or don’t take adequate steps to prevent it, the outcome could be costly, monetarily and reputationally, says Tina.

CLAIMS of bullying and harassment in the workplace have once again grabbed the headlines in the national media, on both sides of the Atlantic. But even for those who don’t work in palaces, the impact of personal attacks by colleagues, can be devastating. One such common issue is ‘invisible’ workplace bullying, when an employee has a feeling they’re being talked about behind their back.

Being deliberately left out of conversations
or feeling others are commenting on your ability, appearance or spreading malicious rumours or derogatory comments about your personal life, can have serious consequences for the mental wellbeing of the individual concerned.

For those organisations that ignore it or don’t take adequate steps to prevent it, the outcome could be costly, both monetarily and reputationally.

Bullying and harassment: what are the differences?
It goes without saying bullying and harassment are unwelcome in any workplace, and the presence of these can have a significant impact on employee welfare, talent retention and general productivity.

Harassment is defined 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’.

The protected characteristics include age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage or civil partnership and pregnancy or maternity.

If an employee is able to demonstrate that they’ve suffered harassment that is related to a protected characteristic, they’ll be eligible to bring a claim for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010 (‘the Equality Act’).

Unlike harassment, bullying doesn’t fall under the Equality Act. Therefore, a claim on the basis of discrimination isn’t an option in respect of an employee who’s been bullied, unless they’re able to show the bullying also falls under the definition of ‘harassment’.

This doesn’t mean employees who suffer from workplace bullying have no means of redress however, it can be more difficult for these employees to ascertain the appropriate route forward given there is not one single piece of legislation which deals with this.

Drafting a thorough policy
From a business perspective, it’s crucial steps are taken to prevent such behaviour, as this will show colleagues that you take such matters seriously and measures are in place to deal with accusations.
One of the most effective ways to prevent it is to develop and circulate a well-drafted bullying and harassment policy, ideally using some of the advice and guidance that’s offered by an experienced legal team.

Before drafting the policy, it’s crucial the senior management team is onboard and committed to enforcing it. This means recognising harassment and bullying exists and understanding the impact it can have on individuals.

Within the policy, it should be made clear bullying and harassment is unlawful and won’t be tolerated under any circumstances. By providing examples of behaviour that might constitute bullying and harassment, you can remove any grey areas, warning a breach of the policy could result in disciplinary action.

It should also reassure complainants any issues raised will remain confidential, with reference to the company’s grievance procedures where necessary. Make it clear the same rules apply to employees working away from the office too.

Don’t ignore the problem
Of course, all organisations want to resolve accusations of bullying and harassment quickly, so the complainant(s) can put the issue behind them and focus on work.

However, some incidents may be serious and demand more of the employer’s time. If this is the case, it’s important to work through the complaint with the cooperation of all the involved parties – don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s been sorted after one conversation.

If you fail to take the complaint seriously, then you immediately show the employee this type of behaviour is acceptable, which is detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of the individual, who may then escalate the issue to senior management.

Not only this, but dealing with a tribunal claim can be lengthy and costly and is capable of damaging the reputation of your business, especially if it becomes clear the issue wasn’t handled properly.
Instead, tackle the issue head on and take all appropriate action to put a stop to unacceptable behaviour including taking disciplinary action against the perpetrator(s).

In conclusion
No business wants to believe that incidents of harassment or bullying would take place, but inevitably, there will be employees that suffer from some form of inappropriate behaviour.

While it’s important for organisations to introduce policies that reduce the risk of such incidents occurring, senior management must do all they can to educate employees and ensure complainants are supported when issues come to light.

If your business is finding it difficult to draft a comprehensive policy or it requires legal guidance with a recent incident, then it’s important to contact an experienced legal team to provide assistance before the problem worsens.

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