Trade unions have long fought for equal treatment and dignity at work. Under-staffed and poorly managed workplaces contribute to workplace bullying and harassment, just as target-driven workplaces may also encourage it. Staff care is becoming more relevant as organisations increasingly demand an adaptable and flexible workforce. Representatives need to understand what constitutes bullying and harassment and how to use policies to improve the situation, for members and the organisation and to build trust and respect between diverse communities.
Bullying, harassment and violence undermine the rights and health of staff. All of these are unwanted. They are not ‘fun’ or ‘having a laugh’ or ’making a fuss about nothing’. Acas defines bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person.” Harassment can be defined as unwanted conduct that violates people’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
Staff well-being is a matter of mutual interest to employers, managers, trade unions and the workforce. To this end there should be a number of policies and procedures in place that:
People being bullied or harassed at work should not suffer in silence but should seek immediate advice from their union representative or HR department. They should not feel guilty or weak or that they are to blame in some way for inviting bullying and harassing behaviour.
Bullying and harassment must be taken seriously by employers. People’s complaints must be believed and dealt with swiftly, seriously and sensitively. Confronting a bully on your own is not easy and is effective only in the early stages. The longer the bullying and harassment goes on, the harder it becomes to confront the bully, so members should use the union and other people to help them.
“I was blamed for my own mistakes in front of the entire office. I was shouted at and told not to do it again. Everyone was listening as the manager shouted at me”.
“It included rubbishing your work, public humiliation through doing a job not to the required standard. Setting unrealistic targets, being made to feel ‘unprofessional’.”
“Made to take a £2,000 pa pay cut, otherwise will be out of work. Holidays cut, sick leave cut, forced to sign new contracts”.
“I was threatened with job loss because I wanted bank holiday off with my family”.
“I was harassed at home by phone by my ward manager when I was off sick. I was threatened about my job due to how much sick leave I’d had in the past six months. The sick leave was due to having to wait three weeks for a hospital admission. I needed time off for treatment for cervical cancer. My manager told lies to other staff about why I was off work.”
“Baiting traps to get me into trouble. Not coming forward with information about job. Exaggerating truth to others. Passing the buck. Feel that I’m being watched all the time. Changing my hours to make life difficult.”
“Not giving me enough information to carry out tasks asked and then showing me up in front of other individuals and threatening disciplinary action”.
“The manager totally undermined me in front of clients, giving them the impression I was not capable of helping them and advising them to come another day.”
“Taking my clock card out of the rack and discussing my hours with general office staff. Not passing on messages. Delaying paperwork so deadlines were missed.”
“One slight error, the manager blows up as if you had done the whole page wrong. Will not listen to what you have to say. Picks on different people at different times”.
“Being told to wash some rubbish in front of a supervisor”.
Employers who fail to tackle bullying are breaking the law. All employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. That includes protection from bullying and harassment at work. The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations also require employers to assess the nature and the scale of workplace risks to health and safety, ensure there are proper control measures in place, and take action to remove or avoid these risks wherever possible as far is as reasonably practicable.
The Health and Safety Executive also states that “there should be systems in place to deal with interpersonal conflicts such as bullying and harassment”.
The Employment Rights Act 1996 allows employees to claim unfair dismissal if they are forced to leave their job because of actions by their employer or a failure to deal with any complaint. This can include failure by the employer to protect their employees from bullying and harassing behaviour.
If an employee is being harassed because of their age, disability, gender reassignment, married or civil partner status, pregnancy or maternity, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation, then they may have a claim under the Equality Act 2010. (For more information see the chapter on equality.)
Causing a person harassment, alarm, or distress can be a criminal act and in certain circumstances the police can charge the harasser with a criminal offence. Also, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, victims of harassment can seek civil injunctions against behaviour that causes distress.
However, these legal protections can be difficult to use in practice and only after bullying or harassing behaviour has taken place. They may also not address the deeper causes of bullying and harassment. Therefore the priority for trade unions must be to prevent people being bullied in the first place. To do that it is important to focus on the bullying behaviour rather than the bullies themselves. This recognises that some people who bully do not do so knowingly, but specifically reflect a culture that is being allowed to develop within the workplace.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has published guidance for employers on preventing stress at work that makes it clear that bullying and harassment can be a cause of stress and that preventative measures must include action to eliminate bullying and harassment where it exists.
The key to identifying causes of stress and eliminating them is risk assessment and employers should adopt a systematic step-by-step approach as with their other risk assessment duties under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and the other health and safety legislation referred to earlier. Employer should first seek to identify potential or actual causes of stress in the workplace. A checklist developed to suit the organisation could be used as a starting point.
Having identified potential sources of stress in the organisation, employers should next determine the perceived level of stress among employees. The only way to do this is by asking employees themselves. This may be done by means of a questionnaire to all employees or by asking employees who take sick leave to complete a simple form asking them whether they think their illness was stress related. While the former may be anonymous, the latter clearly is not. Employers will need to explain clearly why they are asking for the information and assure employees that it will be treated on a no-blame basis. Other ways of determining whether there may be a problem include looking at sickness absence trends, staff turnover rates, etc.
Risk assessment also requires employers to examine their existing preventative and protective measures and to evaluate their effectiveness. So for the next step they should check their health and safety organisation and ensure that measures to prevent or control physical, chemical, biological or environmental hazards are adequate. This means looking also at the adequacy of information, instruction and training for employees. No matter how good control measures are, if employees do not understand the nature of the risks they may face and what steps have been taken to protect them they may experience high levels of anxiety.
Employers should also look at their organisation and other relevant policies to see whether they are adequate or whether more needs to be done. For example, employers should check that policies to prevent violence, bullying and harassment etc. are actually being implemented and are working.
If provision is made for regular departmental meetings employers should check that meetings are actually held and that they provide an effective forum for discussing problems, disseminating information etc. Employers should ensure that they make clear that management training is a requirement of the job and not an optional extra. They should also ensure that employees are provided with and take up training opportunities.
Employers should ensure that they provide real information to employees about their work, for example by means of staff handbooks or work manuals and by regular bulletins. In-house journals that concentrate on stories about personalities are not sufficient.
Employers should also ensure that they are consulting union representatives on a regular basis about all issues that affect their workforce.
Once any problems have been identified, remedial action will need to be taken. Some problems may be easy to resolve: others may require a longer-term strategy. Priorities for action should be agreed jointly and it should be clear who has responsibility for implementing them. Organisational and management problems must be taken equally seriously as problems with, for example, the work environment. If what is needed is a change of organisational culture, a review of management practices, the development of management training or the improvement of internal communications, then these changes must be implemented according to an agreed timetable.
The crucial feature of any strategy to reduce the risk of bullying and harassment is encouraging effective reporting. Research suggests that only serious health effects or incidents are reported, the reasons being that:
An accurate record of the causes and effects of bullying and harassment are necessary to:
Union representatives are often the first person that someone will talk to if they are experiencing bullying or harassment. From the very start, representatives can advise members to do certain things that will help their case.
If a person approaches you saying they have been bullied or harassed, the following steps can be taken:
After the interview check:
Unreasonable, offensive, intimidating or insulting behaviour, which makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable, which undermines confidence and which may cause stress.
Bullying and harassment can occur at any level and within any relationship. It is not confined to management or supervision. Employees may bully colleagues on the same, lower or higher grades and groups of employees may bully individuals. Generally, there is a pattern of behaviour that constitutes bullying and harassment, not a single event. Here are some examples:
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