What constitutes workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination?

By Sylvia Sage, programme director, Corporate Learning Solutions

For hotel owners, it is often difficult to know what constitutes bullying, harassment or discrimination.

Many behaviours, actions or even words are not clearly right or wrong.

Instead they may fall into a “grey zone” where different people judge these behaviours, actions or words differently.

For some, it might be harmless banter. For others, it’s harassment.

Let’s look at an example.

The hotel has appointed a new concierge, George. George is newly qualified, young, and appears a little shy.

George has been in place for three weeks and joins his first monthly team meeting. The meeting is being held in a meeting room at the hotel with a board-room style layout. Both adjoining rooms are in use.

Hannah, the hotel’s event manager, joins the meeting late, and finds herself without a chair. She perches on the arm of a colleague’s chair.

Within just a few minutes, Hannah is dominating the conversation, which now feels stilted. Other members of staff appear to be listening but are no longer offering information or opinions. The conversation has become a one-way flow.

George is called away by another member of staff to help a guest. Hannah takes George’s seat.

When he returns, there is no seat for George. He remains standing awkwardly by the door.

Hannah remains seated. She asks George what took him so long. When he begins to explain, Hannah looks heavenward and pointedly turns away to ask another member of staff a question. Someone stifles a laugh.

This is not the first time Hannah has acted in this way towards George in public.

She has previously been overheard joking to colleagues that he’s ‘not got the stuff’, and that ‘he won’t last’.

She did not invite him to a recent staff social, to which every other concierge was invited.

So, is this harassment or discrimination?

Harassment, bullying and discrimination

Harassment and bullying can be defined as behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended.

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as “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”.

The nine protected characteristics are disability, race, sex, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, religion or belief, and age.

While bullying is not specifically defined in the Equality Act, it is often considered a pattern of behaviour.

Closely linked to harassment and bullying, discrimination is “less favourable treatment of another person or persons”.

Examples of discrimination, harassment and bullying include:

  • unfair treatment
  • picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • comments that deliberately belittle or undermine a person
  • ridiculing or demeaning someone
  • exclusion or victimisation

Harassment and discrimination are against the law.

Notably, it is the impact that is important, so conduct might be considered harassment even if this is not intended.

The answer

Based on the definitions and examples given above, Hannah’s behaviour towards George might be deemed to constitute harassment or bullying. Especially if George feels humiliated, unfairly treated, belittled or excluded.

If George were associated with one of the nine protected characteristics, this behaviour would fall into the definitions of unlawful behaviour under the Equality Act.

In the next article, we consider what hotel owners need to do to help tackle these behaviours.