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Bullying and harassment in a workplace are serious matters, and employers are responsible for taking reasonable steps to prevent such behaviour.
The equality legislation makes it unlawful in employment or vocational training to harass someone on the grounds of:
- gender reassignment
- sexual orientation
Harassment of a sexual nature is also unlawful.
Bullying and harassment are unacceptable on moral grounds and may, if they are allowed to go unchecked or are badly handled, create serious problems for your business. Harassment is also against the law and can result in an employment tribunal or other civil claims against the employer and large awards in compensation.
Bullying and harassment can also have a bad effect on your business in other ways, including poor performance, low staff morale and poor employee relations, loss of respect for management, increase in absence and higher staff turnover.
What is meant by bullying and harassment?
Harassment - in relation to employment - has a legal definition, but bullying does not.
Bullying - There is no single legal definition of bullying, but it can include:
offensive or insulting behaviour by another employee which makes an individual feel threatened, or taken advantage of humiliation of an employee less obvious ways of making an employee feel frightened or demoralised.
Some common forms of bullying are: verbal abuse - e.g persistent taunting physical violence or violent gestures public humiliation of an employee.
However, bullying can be more subtle, such as: giving someone an impossible deadline removing an employee's responsibilities and giving them more menial tasks; withholding information or giving false information.
Harassment on the grounds of sex, gender reassignment, race, disability, religion/belief, sexual orientation and age, along with sexual harassment, is explicitly prohibited in employment and vocational training.
Harassment is defined as any unwanted conduct related to race, age, etc that has the purpose or effect of: violating the dignity of an individual, creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive atmosphere for an individual.
Sexual harassment is defined as any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of: violating an individual's dignity creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for an individual. It can also occur when an individual: rejects the unwanted conduct mentioned above or unwanted conduct related to gender reassignment or sex and is treated unfairly as a result.
It is important to note that, while sexual harassment is commonly committed by a man against a woman, it can also be committed by a woman against a man, by a man against another man or by a woman against another woman.
Third-party harassment - It is unlawful to allow an employee to be persistently harassed by a third party, e.g a client or customer.
However, you may only be liable for such harassment if you know that the employee has been harassed in the course of their employment on at least two other occasions by a third party.
Examples of harassment include:
- embarrassing or otherwise offensive jokes;
- unwelcome physical contact or sexual advances;
- the expression of racist, homophobic, etc views;
- lewd comments and innuendo;
- the sending of offensive emails, text messages, etc;
- displays of pornographic material.
It is possible that some incidents of harassment may not be covered by the anti-discrimination legislation. However, if an employer fails to deal with any form of harassment, the victim could resign and claim constructive dismissal.
It is good practice for employers to have a bullying and harassment policy giving written examples of what is unacceptable behaviour in their organisation.