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Unfair treatment at work: what can employers do?

5 min read  |   19 October, 2021   By Rachael Down

    

Most of us luckily leave the horrors of bullying behind soon after stepping out of school. Whether bully or victim, most have the opportunity to mature and move on.

Unfortunately, there are occasions where playground tactics and unfair treatment can stick through to adulthood, then creep into the workplace, boardroom and beyond.

Employers need to understand:

If there's one thing we know about bullying, it's that it isn't always obvious. And when we transfer this to the adult-world, we see a subtler exchange where one employee undermines another, or someone who is deliberately berated for their work instead of acknowledging the hurdles their employee faces.

It's most likely because they're under resourced. Have they received backing to look for extra training?

If you’re running your own business, then nipping any unfair behaviour or bullying in the bud isn’t only important for staff wellbeing and morale, it also has a direct impact on your bottom line too. 

What is unfair treatment at work?

As an employer, you want your staff to feel respected and fairly treated at work. If, therefore, you sniff even the faintest whiff of victimisation or bullying, be the adult and talk to your team.  

Unfair treatment can mean a number of things:

  • It could involve a staff member having their work undermined even though they’re competent at their job.
  • A manager could take a dislike to a particular employee and make their life difficult, unfairly criticising their work or setting them menial tasks.
  • Whereas one may get ignorantly overlooked for promotion, another could involve employee slander.

In all cases, the victim(s) - so, one or more of your people - are likely to suffer from anxiety, feel degraded, humiliated and unworthy, which is most likely heightened at work. 

Unfair treatment typically overlaps with discrimination, so we're talking gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or pregnancy.

For example, if someone is offered a promotion but later mentions they are pregnant and that promotion is withdrawn without what is considered fair explanation, this could be discrimination.

Bullying and harassment at work

Employers and HR managers must take extra care to spot potential sources of bullying and harassment at work.

Bullying and harassment constitute any treatment that leaves an employee feeling degraded, humiliated, offended or intimidated. In addition, an employee might not feel able to complain, particularly if the bully is a manager or more senior than them.

Example of harassment at work

Picture this:

Jane makes offensive and derogatory comments about Paul’s sexuality. Paul overhears Jane whispering and sniggling as he returns to his desk from lunch. He messages his manager, explaining his concerns and how Jane's behaviour is making him feel uncomfortable at work. His manager - Suzie - has had a busy day and quickly dismisses it as banter, hoping to sweep it under the carpet. 

As an employer, Suzie could've listened to Paul's concerns and set up an internal meeting to go over the facts and how this made him feel. That's because before any grievance procedure starts, it's important to make everyone aware of their options for reporting bullying or harassment at work. And, this also helps to keep things confidential. 

Make sure your formal policy is firmly in place and easily to access. Think of your employee handbook as the holy grail of your company's procedures, a how-to-guide for outlining incident reporting as well as setting behaviour expectations and standards to deter unfair treatment.

Company culture has a big impact here. Especially if you follow a hierarchy, top-down leadership model. Nonetheless, regardless of culture type, ensure that your senior staff and managers set a good example and practise what they preach.  

The law on bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment is a serious and common work risk. Studies suggest that between one in five and one in three New Zealand workers report bullying or harassment annually. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) businesses are expected to manage health and safety risks arising from their work as far as is reasonably practicable

Where you can, try to encourage your employees to communicate and solve issues informally.

Protect your employees

Thankfully, our management-style is pretty new school, so takes culture seriously. That's why we welcome open door, call anytime, face-to-face interactions and support with all of our team.

Equally, suggest to your employees that they check their company documents and grievance procedure.

We've found this helpful as it gives your employees more time and privacy when reading their options as well as a chance to make notes and mark questions they can then check with their HR consultant or manager.

What to do if there's unfair treatment in your business

Make sure your employees are well aware of the free services available to them at such times. A good starting point is through the Human Rights Commission who offer advice and suggest help from both government and other organisations if the problem can't be resolved.

Bullying and harassment policies:

Ensure that your anti-bullying and harassment policies are clear as day and easily accessible to staff at all times. 

Policies and procedures with clear statements - which outline unacceptable grounds and the consequences that follow - often see the best results here.

Actions:

  • If there's employee mistreatment in your workplace, a quick and supportive reaction is advised. Investigate the claim promptly and treat it seriously – employees don’t normally complain unless they feel seriously wronged so give it the attention it deserves.
  • Collate all the evidence from all parties before drawing any conclusions. 
  • Attempt to resolve it informally – sometimes people simply don’t realise their behaviour is causing offence and simple education will rectify this.
  • Offer free services and advice. For example, counselling or mediation therapy may help to resolve any issue.
  • Where informal resolutions are unsuccessful, disciplinary action against the perpetrator may be necessary.
  • A written warning, transfer or suspension of the bully/harasser are all options you could consider.
  • If the bullying or harassment amounts to gross misconduct, then dismissal is likely the best option.

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