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Harassment and Bullying

Harassment and bullying can make for a workplace which many will find unbearable. Abiding by discrimination legislation can ensure that your employees are kept safe.

Harassment in the workplace can be a huge problem for employees, and it is also against the law. As an employer, you are responsible for dealing with any concerns raised by your employees about harassment. Failing to do so could lead to the victim making a claim against you under the Equality Act 2010.

What is harassment?

Harassment is a form of bullying which relates to one of the protected characteristics defined under the Equality Act. Bullying itself is defined as any kind of “unwanted conduct”, which can include a wide range of behaviours.

Unwanted conduct may include:

  • insults or teasing
  • treating someone unfairly
  • spreading rumours
  • denial of promotion, training or other advancement opportunities

Harassment does not necessarily need to be face-to-face. The unwanted conduct could take place over the phone, via email, or even behind a person’s back.

In fact, harassment does not need to be aimed at a particular individual to affect them; it may simply be that the way other people in the workplace act has the effect of making them feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or afraid. For example, a female employee may feel harassed by male employees making sexual comments at work, even if they are not directed specifically at her.

It is also important to keep in mind that a person does not need to actually possess a protected characteristic for unwanted conduct relating to that characteristic to count as harassment. A straight employee may nonetheless face homophobic bullying from other employees who think or joke that he is gay. Other cases of harassment may be due to a person’s association with someone possessing a protected characteristic – where someone has a family member with a disability, for example. Both of these situations still count as harassment and discrimination, and the affected person could take action under the Equality Act.

Handling harassment

The best way to deal with harassment is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Ensure that you have policies in place relating to employee conduct in the workplace, making it clear what is expected of your workers and what is unacceptable. Not only does this make it clear to employees how they are supposed to behave, it also shows that you have made an effort to prevent harassment from taking place in your company, which can help if a claim should later arise.

As well as policies on workplace conduct, you should make sure that your employees know how they can make a complaint if they are a victim of bullying and harassment. Have a grievance policy in place and ensure that your employees know how and when they can use it. Ensure that you thoroughly investigate any complaints and take action if necessary.

If you are made aware of harassment taking place in your company, you are legally required to take steps to deal with it and can be held responsible if it continues. If you fail to act against harassment, you could be taken to an employment tribunal by the victim.