Bullying and harassment has no place at work. A hostile environment leads to poor performance, high staff turnover and a damaged professional reputation—let alone the psychological damage it can cause your employees. As an employer, it's your job to stamp it out, and the best place to start is a strong bullying and harassment policy.
What is bullying & harassment in the workplace?
When creating an anti-bullying and harassment policy you will need to communicate what bullying and harassment is. According to the UK government, bullying and harassment in the workplace is “behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended”.
This can include behaviour such as:
- spreading rumours
- treating an individual or group unfairly
- picking on, or regularly undermining someone
- denying someone's career progression
It can happen face-to-face, but does not happen exclusively in person. Bullying and harassment can also happen by phone, letter, email and social media.
Bullying in the workplace
Bullying in the workplace is behaviour from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes an individual feel:
- less respected
- made fun of
Examples of bullying in workplace situations can range from false rumours being spread to being excluded from team social events.
Bullying can take many forms within a workplace. A lesser identified form of bullying in the workplace is upward bullying. This is when a subordinate employee or employees display negative behaviour towards a senior. According to Acas, this type of behaviour can include
- continually showing disrespect
- refusing to complete tasks
- spreading rumours
- doing things to make the senior seem unskilled or unable to do their job properly
Harassment in the workplace
Although bullying is technically not against the law, under the Equality Act 2010 harassment is. Similar to the laws surrounding discrimination, harassment legislation covers the victim suffering intimidating or offensive behaviour in relation to protected characteristics, which include:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
As an employer you should watch out for these, as they take form in three core ways:
This is the most likely example of harassment you will come across. It can involve the sharing of offensive jokes or graphics about a protected characteristic—by email, group chat or social media. It can also include repeatedly asking an individual for dates or sexual favours through text. Imitating someone’s foreign accent behind their back is another example of this kind of harassment.
This can range from the obvious to the more subtle. Examples include lewd hand gestures, unwanted touching of a person or their clothing, as well as frequently following or standing too close to a person on purpose.
Also included in this category is playing music with degrading language and making sexually suggestive facial expressions.
Visual harassment can be difficult to spot, as it can be subjective. For example, a picture may be displayed at a colleague’s desk which most staff members find amusing. However, for others it may be deemed offensive and a contributing factor to a hostile working environment.
- wearing clothing with offensive images or language
- showing other members of staff explicit messages
- drawing violent or derogatory images
As an employer you should be creating a bullying and harassment policy that aims to discourage and eliminate all of the above.
Why have an anti-harassment & bullying policy?
To put it simply, it is good practice for organisations to implement a bullying and harassment policy. Not only does it make a statement of intent to create a safe workspace for your employees, having such a procedure in place can help improve the company culture, reduce staff turnover and generate a positive professional reputation.
In short, if you have a positive and accepting work environment, your employees will be more productive and less likely to leave.
What should an employee do when being harassed?
A key part of your bullying and harassment policy will be communicating to your staff what to do when they find themselves being bullied or harassed.
What should be made clear is that they should start by trying an informal approach. This can be done by a meeting of the two parties, or by talking with their senior, HR or the employer. They should be able to do this without fear of retaliation or repercussion and it should remain confidential between the two parties.
However, if they do not feel comfortable about doing this or the issue is particularly serious, then your policy should explain how to raise a formal workplace grievance.
All complaints should be investigated in a timely and confidential manner. The investigation should be conducted by someone with the appropriate experience and no prior involvement.
You should also stipulate in your policy that if the employee believes that bullying or harassing behaviour is being targeted at another employee, they can also bring this forward or raise a grievance.
Example of a bullying and harassment policy
If you don’t want to create a policy completely from scratch, consider what you have just read and use our template below as an example when creating your own.
Bullying and harassment policy
This section will introduce your employees to what your goals are and how this policy will go about achieving this:
- Include your company name.
- State how you aim to provide a working environment free from harassment and bullying.
- State how the company will not permit or condone any form of bullying and harassment.
- Explain what this policy covers:
- Bullying and harassment of or by anyone working at the company.
- That it encompasses both bullying in the workplace and outside of it (consider business trips, work socials) .
- A bullying and harassment policy does not have to sit within an employee's contract of employment and can be amended at any time.
What is harassment?
This section will outline what harassment is and how it will be judged as part of your policy. Consider what you have read, in particular the law regarding harassment in the workplace:
- Define harassment to make it clear what behaviour is unacceptable from your employees:
- Unwanted physical, verbal or non verbal conduct that has the effect of violating a person's dignity in relation to the protected characteristics outlined in the Equalities Act 2010.
- Creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for a group or individuals in relation to the Equalities Act 2010.
- That a single instance of this behaviour can and will be viewed as a serious breach of conduct.
- Reference your equalities policy.
- Provide examples of harassment for context:
- Unwanted physical conduct or "horseplay", including touching, pinching, pushing and grabbing.
- Unwelcome sexual advances or suggestive behaviour (which the harasser may perceive as harmless).
- Offensive emails, text messages or social media content.
- Mocking, mimicking or belittling a person's disability.
- State that it is harassment even if the harasser views their actions being ‘for fun’ or without malice. What matters is how the recipient feels.
- Explain that a person may also be harassed even if they are not the intended target.
What is bullying?
Similar to the harassment section, outline and define what you mean by bullying. Try and include these topics in your own policy:
- Think about what you have read in this article.
- Explain that bullying is a sustained form of offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour.
- Bullying can equate to psychological abuse.
- It will involve the misuse of power or position to belittle, undermine, humiliate or threaten the recipient.
- Workplace bullying can take one of three forms: physical, verbal or indirect.
- It can range from violence and intimidation to professional or social exclusion.
- Examples of bullying in the workplace can include:
- Physical or psychological threats.
- Overbearing and intimidating levels of supervision.
- Inappropriate derogatory remarks about someone's performance.
- Remember to include that legitimate, reasonable and constructive criticism on a worker’s performance or behaviour should not amount to bullying on its own.
- Reasonable, work-related instructions given by a co-worker should not amount to bullying on its own.
What to do if you're being harassed or bullied
This section of your policy should inform the organisation’s employees on how they should report bullying or harassment.
- State that an informal approach should be considered. The instigator of the negative behaviour may not know their behaviour is not welcome or makes anyone feel uncomfortable.
- An informal discussion may help the instigator understand their behaviour is upsetting and help them agree to change it.
- Explain that if the recipient of the negative behaviour does not feel comfortable with this, they can discuss it with their manager.
- The line manager can provide confidential advice and assistance in resolving the issue formally or informally.
- Explain that if an informal approach cannot be worked out, then the matter should be raised formally under the company's Grievance Procedure.
- Here you should explain that all investigations will be conducted in a timely and confidential manner.
- The investigation will also be conducted by someone with appropriate experience and no prior involvement (if possible).
- Explain that any information regarding the complaint will only be disclosed on a need-to-know basis.
- Explain that once the investigation is complete, both parties will be informed of the decision.
- If the employee has been deemed to harass or bully, they will be dealt with under the company’s Disciplinary Procedure.
- State that regardless of the outcome of the complaint, the company will consider how to best manage any ongoing working relationship between recipient and instigator.
Protection and support for those involved
In this section, explain the protection and support available for those involved in the process:
- Inform the reader that team members who make complaints in good faith, or participate in any investigation, will not suffer any form of retaliation or victimisation as a result.
- State that any employee engaged in retaliation will be subject to disciplinary action.
In this section you will outline how information will be recorded:
- Explain that information about a complaint by or about an employee may be placed in either party’s personnel file.
Define the responsibilities all staff must adhere to, to ensure the workplace is free of harassment and bullying. Examples include:
- Considering how your own behaviour may affect others.
- Being receptive, rather than defensive, if asked to change your behaviour.
- Treating your colleagues with dignity and respect.
- Taking a stand if you think inappropriate jokes or comments are being made.
- Making it clear to others when you find their behaviour unacceptable.
- Intervening, if possible, to stop harassment or bullying, and giving support to victims.
- Being open, honest and objective in any investigation of complaints.
- Ensure that there is a supportive working environment in their team.
- Communicate to team members what standards of behaviour are expected from them.
- Promptly report any complaint of bullying or harassment to HR or senior management.
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Author: Andy Stewart