Bullying in the workplace can be a particular problem for small businesses. Without a dedicated HR team, SME owners can struggle to deal with bullying claims properly and in a small office, bullying can create an intense or unpleasant atmosphere, affecting more than just those directly involved.
The word “bullying” can bring to mind schoolyard name calling but of course it can take many forms and in some workplace cultures, bullying behaviours are never properly identified or dealt with. Failing to address this head-on can create a tense working atmosphere; employers could see themselves facing personal injury claims, if the behaviour has caused psychiatric injury, discrimination if the behaviour can be linked to a protected characteristic. Ignoring the issue could prove costly, time-consuming and, ultimately, destructive for your business.
Recognising the issue
Unfortunately for employers, bullying is not legally defined, which can cause difficulties in recognising the problem. However, ACAS provides useful guidance in its publication “Bullying and Harassment at Work“, suggesting that bullying may be defined as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.”
Harassment is a legally separate concept, although often associated with bullying. Harassment as defined in the Equality Act 2010 is “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.”
Dealing with bullying
A zero tolerance approach is advisable as is implementing a clear bullying and anti-harassment policy to ensure staff members understand what constitutes bullying. As mentioned, it can be difficult to define bullying, so ensure the policy is clear, using examples as appropriate. The policy should also set out the process that will be followed if someone feels they have been bullied – how to raise a complaint and how the complaint will be dealt with, reassuring individuals that complaints will be dealt with sensitively. This should help foster a more open office culture and encourage employees to speak up early on.
Bullying can manifest itself in a whole host of ways. It can be obvious behaviour such as – insults being thrown around and arguments, but it can also be very subtle. Only the person being bullied may notice they are being ignored, purposefully passed over when it comes to opportunities, or excluded when it comes to after work drinks and other social events. All employees coming to you with a complaint of bullying must be handled carefully – these can be awkward conversations, especially if someone is being bullied about a personal issue.
Confidentiality where possible is important and anonymous statements can help ease worries and encourage an employee to speak out. It is also vital to keep everyone involved up to date with the progress of the complaint – it’s unfair to keep anyone hanging on, or, even worse, to make someone feel like their complaint hasn’t been taken seriously.
Talk about it
Mediation can be a great way to help two members of staff heal a rift. Another option is to offer confidential counselling – seeking external, independent help may also encourage individuals to talk more frankly about their problems and therefore seek a resolution.
In some instances though, talking about it might not help. We’re all human and sometimes it is a fact of life that two individuals simply do not get on. In these instances, a practical and agreed solution, such as a relocation or changing duties or reporting lines, may be the best answer if available. Bullying can turn into a huge problem for SMEs and it’s essential business owners are aware of the problem and understand how best to nip it in the bud.
Keely Rushmore is senior associate at SA Law.
London-based employment law solicitors Thomas Mansfield pushed out a survey on workplace discrimination and collated some of the most shocking comments.
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