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Why businesses need to take a new approach to tackling workplace bullying and harassment

By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions

Since the dawn of the #metoo movement, we’ve seen a string of prestigious organisations and whole industry sectors come under severe criticism for bullying and harassment, from Google and Amnesty International to the legal profession, the NHS and most recently MPs and the Lords.

It is increasingly clear this is a widespread problem that cannot be ignored and requires concrete action from business leaders and their HR teams.

Workplace bullying is the second most pervasive workplace issue in the UK, after stress, according to the TUC. A quarter of workers had been bullied in the last five years, a University of Manchester survey showed, while almost half had witnessed bullying at work.

Repeated reports focusing on different sectors have highlighted that, despite a lot of talk and posturing, far more needs to be done to effectively tackle this problem. Two released at the start of July showed the extent of bullying and harassment in both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, with one in five peers accused of behaving inappropriately or in a rude or high-handed manner.

The month before, the In Plain Sight report looking at the charity sector found just three per cent of charity workers who complained about bullying felt it was dealt with satisfactorily and 68 per cent of bullying cases were not resolved.

In May, we heard that bullying is ‘rife’ in the legal profession, after a survey of almost 7,000 lawyers by the International Bar Association (IBA).

This is just a taster.

Where senior business leaders are those accused of bullying and harassment, we can expect such behaviour to trickle down from the top, creating a toxic working culture throughout the organisation. This is where a strong HR team with robust policies is vital.

The highly pressured and performance-driven nature of many modern workplaces has helped to blur the line between exacting standards and strong leadership, on the one hand, and plain bullying, on the other.

This not only has a hugely damaging effect on the mental and physical wellbeing and performance of the individual staff members who are victims, but also their colleagues. It results in talented and otherwise engaged and productive employees underperforming, taking more sick leave and leaving the business. If it becomes public, it will make investors think twice about where to place their money.

An unhappy and stressed workforce is a less productive workforce, so, besides the human cost, it will ultimately depress the success and reputation of the business.

What constitutes harassment and bullying?

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

In legal terms, harassment 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”. In the UK, there are nine protected characteristics: race, gender, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, religion, disability, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, and age.

Essentially, it is the impact of the behaviour rather than the intent that is important, so particular behaviour might be considered harassment, even if the effect is unintended.

So what proactive steps should business leaders and HR professionals take to combat harassment and bullying within their companies?

1) Raise awareness and educate all staff on the issues

The first step in preventing harassment and bullying is to ensure that everyone at all levels within a business understands what constitutes harassment, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. There should be a clear delineation between robust management, carried out with respect, and bullying.

Inappropriate behaviour should be defined within the company’s HR policy, with examples given to aid understanding and recognition, e.g. offensive jokes, slurs, intimidation and interference with work.

The HR team should work with senior managers and staff representatives at all levels to set in place a code of conduct that fosters care and respect between all staff. Crucially, senior managers, HR managers and all people in a position of authority must set the tone from the top with their own exemplary conduct.

2) Facilitate defence

Businesses must have robust guidelines and complaints procedures in place to enable staff to speak out and defend themselves and others from inappropriate behaviour, with clearly defined informal and formal steps employees can take to raise and address concerns as early as possible – before the situation escalates.

An open-door policy that makes managers and ‘go-to persons’ within the company available and approachable so that staff can talk to them when needed is an important starting point.

If the issues cannot be dealt with informally, the HR team and designated officers must take more formal steps to monitor and tackle the issue, which might mean keeping a written record of all actions and speaking to all those involved to formulate an appropriate response.

The complaint should be properly investigated and all parties consulted in a sensitive and confidential manner, with appropriate support offered to the alleged victim.

Sometimes, dealing with workplace tensions is a simple case of educating the ‘bully’ who may be unaware of the damaging impact of their behaviour. However, HR teams and senior managers must be prepared to take more stringent disciplinary action when necessary – at whatever level of the organisational hierarchy!

3) Foster positive company values

To create a truly happy and productive workplace, HR must work closely with company bosses to create a culture of respect, based on positive shared values, where those in charge act as role models.

Many of today’s most successful enterprises are companies that promote strong ethical values and pride themselves in being great places to work, with loyal and engaged workforces.

Staff who themselves feel valued and are treated with respect are more likely to behave well towards those around them.

Boosting the wellbeing of employees will benefit their health and leave them feeling more energised, enthusiastic and motivated, which will directly affect their performance at work.

In a happy and truly respectful workplace, everyone is a winner.

This article was first published in HR News