What are an employer’s duties when it comes to bullying and harassment in the workplace?

What are an employer’s duties when it comes to bullying and harassment in the workplace?

18th March 2024, 3:08 pm

One in ten people in the UK has suffered some form of workplace bullying or harassment. Philip Richardson, partner and head of employment law at Stephensons explores an employer’s responsibilities when these issues arise in the workplace.

The issue of workplace bullying remains a persistent one. Latest figures from the CIPD suggest that one in 10 workers in the UK has suffered some form of workplace bullying or harassment. Women are significantly more likely than men to say they’ve been bullied or harassed whilst at work.

Employment laws play a crucial role in safeguarding the rights and well-being of all employees. They include the prevention and resolution of workplace bullying and harassment. Employers and employees need to be aware and receive training on these aspects to help ensure a fair and respectful workplace.

Is bullying the same as harassment?

Many people often think that they are the same, however, employment legislation makes a distinction.

There is no specific piece of legislation that covers bullying. ACAS however define bullying as: “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.

Harassment is covered by law under the Equality Act 2010. It must be conduct in relation to a protected characteristic (i.e. age, disability, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation) and is defined as “unwanted conduct that violates people’s dignity or creates an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

Employers have a duty to ensure that there is a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bullying such that if an employee is being bullied and this is ignored or not dealt with properly by an employer, this could give rise to trust and confidence issues in the working relationship. This, in turn, could lead to a situation where an employee may be forced to leave their employment. Bullying in the workplace therefore could give rise to a constructive dismissal claim.

Often bullying goes unreported for fear it could impact their job or career prospects. However, employees should feel comfortable reporting instances of bullying and harassment. It is important that employers establish clear and accessible procedures for reporting such incidents, ensuring confidentiality and protection against victimisation. An employer must take reasonable steps to create a working environment free from discrimination and harassment, including implementing anti-bullying policies, providing training, and addressing complaints promptly.

If a complaint is made the employer should investigate this in the first instance and follow their internal procedure.

To support a positive workplace culture and to safeguard against claims employers should:

1. Implement clear anti-bullying and harassment policies. The policies should define the terms and ideally best practice is to give examples and outline the differences

2. Provide regular training on diversity and inclusion

3. Address complaints promptly and impartially and make clear how they can be raised and what the internal procedure is

4. Create an open communication environment but also ensure employees can speak confidentially.

It is vital that employers take harassment and bullying seriously, they can have a severe impact on a business and individuals involved.

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