How to tackle workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment

By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions

Sylvia 1It has only recently become clear just how widespread workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment are in the UK.

Since the birth of the #metoo movement, we have seen a string of organisations, business leaders and whole sectors come under fire for inappropriate treatment of staff.  From Google and Amnesty International to the NHS and Westminster, few sectors are immune.

Bullying is the second biggest workplace concern after stress, according to a TUC 2018 survey.

This not only has a hugely damaging impact on the mental and physical wellbeing and performance of the victims, but also their colleagues.

It will result in talented staff leaving the business and may even make investors think twice about where to place their money.  An unhappy and stressed workforce is a less productive, so, in addition to the human cost, it will ultimately limit the success of the business.

What constitutes discrimination, harassment and bullying?

Harassment and bullying can be simply defined as behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended while discrimination is less favourable treatment of another person or persons.

Harassment and discrimination are against the law. The Equality Act 2010 section 26 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.

It is also against the law if accepting the behaviour becomes a condition of employment or if the behaviour is serious enough to be considered intimidating, hostile or abusive.

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

What can businesses do?

 1) Educate all staff

The first step in preventing harassment, bullying and discrimination is to ensure that everyone at all levels within a business understands the relevant definitions.

There should be a clear delineation between sound management, which can be practised with respect and civility, and bullying.

Inappropriate and disrespectful behaviourshould be defined in the company’s HR policy. Examples of unacceptable behaviour might include offensive jokes, slurs, physical assaults or threats, intimidation and interference with work.

Business leaders should set in place a code of conductthat fosters care and respect between all staff. Crucially they must also set the tone from the top with their own exemplary conduct.

2) Facilitate defence

Businesses must have robust complaints procedures in place to enable staff to speak out and defend themselves and others from inappropriate behaviour.

There should be informal and formal steps employees can take to raise concerns as early as possible, before the situation escalates.

If inappropriate conduct cannot be dealt with informally, more formal steps need to be taken to monitor and tackle the issue. This could mean keeping a written record of all actions and reporting the issue to a more senior figure or the HR team, who can then take appropriate action to stop the behaviour.

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 involves educating a ‘bully’ who is unaware of the damaging impact of their behaviour. However, managers must be prepared to take more stringent disciplinary action when necessary.

3) Foster positive company values

To create a truly happy and productive workplace, company bosses must instil a culture of respect and promote positive shared values. An organisational culture is generally set at the top, so those in charge need to 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 a very loyal and engaged workforce.

Boosting the wellbeing of staff will benefit their health and leave them feeling more energised, enthusiastic and motivated. This is likely to have a knock-on effect on their performance at work. In a happy workplace, everyone is a winner.

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