Workplace bullying and harassment

Next week, November 11 to 15, is the anti-bullying week, so let’s use this opportunity to promote a safe workplace. The theme for this year is “Change starts with us”.

Bullying and harassment both refer to ‘unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended’, according to Acas (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). It can be obvious or subtle, persistent or isolated, between individuals or groups. It can also take many forms:

  • Face-to-face
  • By letter
  • By email
  • By phone

However, business owners must understand that there is a slight legal difference between bullying and harassment.

What is bullying?

Acas 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. In any business, all employees are responsible for ensuring that their behaviour does not fall into this category.

Bullying itself is not against the law, but nevertheless must be reported. It is said that one in four employees have experienced bullying or been made to feel out of place at work. These negative experiences at work often lead to stress and pressure. Accordingly, it is crucial that small business owners understand the severity of the problem and have a clear and rigorous policy in place to combat bullying and harassment in the workplace. To promote a bully-free workplace, look for the following signs of bullying:

  • Someone has spread malicious rumours about certain team members.
  • Someone has been treated unfairly.
  • Someone continuously picks on or regularly undermines another person.
  • Someone has denied other’s training or promotion opportunities.

What is harassment?

Harassment violates the Equality Act 2010, which defines it 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.’

Harassment is extremely personal. HMRC characterises harassment as behaviour relating to the following:

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sexual orientation

Every business owner must be aware that because harassment violates the Equality Act 2010 and Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, it requires urgent resolution before it is being escalated to legal action.

Why small businesses may struggle to deal with bullying and harassment

Smaller businesses often face greater difficulty in successfully dealing with bullying and harassment claims than larger corporations for the following reasons:

  • A lack of HR

Many small businesses lack the resources to employ a full-time HR department. Consequently, cases may go unreported as recipients of bullying and harassment may feel isolated, and perhaps afraid to speak to their managers.

  • A lack of money

Should the case of harassment go to court, majority of small businesses cannot afford to pay the fees attached to legal cases. The troubles may lead them to shut down the company instead.

  • Unclear policy on bullying and harassment

Small businesses are less likely to have a clear, formal policy on bullying and harassment than larger businesses.

What small business owners can do to promote a safe workplace

As a small business owner, you know first-hand that workplace bullying and harassment can lead to low morale and increased absenteeism, which in turn will lower productivity and hurt your bottom line.

To establish a high-performing team where everyone can contribute to business growth, there is no room for anyone to create hostility at work. For small business owners looking to foster a safe and effective workplace, here are a few things you can consider:

  1. Have a clear statement that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated and deserve to be treated as disciplinary offences.
  2. Provide examples of unacceptable behaviour.
  3. Encourage your employees to report any incidences to management right away.

If you are unsure of how to respond to unwanted behaviour, please follow the guideline above or call the Acas helpline for advice:

Telephone: 0300 123 1100
Textphone: 18001 0300 123 1100
Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm.