Over the last few months there have been some serious allegations regarding inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, some of which have resulted in court cases and prosecutions. As a consequence, many companies are now acutely aware of their obligations regarding behaviour in the workplace and very keen to put employees through retraining. Aside from the fact that a happy workplace is a more productive workplace, inappropriate behaviour by employees can leave employers open to potentially large compensation payments.
In larger companies it is the responsibility of the HR Department to put procedures and policies in place to combat inappropriate behaviour. Small businesses which do not warrant the expense of an HR Department often see this responsibility fall on the shoulders of the founder/owner.
Side Note Regarding Behaviour In The Workplace
This whole issue of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace can be complex. Very often it is a case of changing habits and attitudes which may well have been deemed appropriate in the past but have no place in the modern workplace. It is also worth noting that the recent raft of allegations regarding inappropriate behaviour were largely centred round directors, owners and management. This perfectly illustrates the growing reach of regulations, the need to take action and in effect bring historic working practices into the modern era.
Sexual Harassment In The Workplace
The Equality Act 2010 covers the issue of sexual harassment in great detail and describes it as:-
“unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”
One of the greatest challenges with regards to sexual harassment in the workplace is the fact that many of those undertaking such actions do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Just because something was deemed as “acceptable banter” 20 years ago does not mean it is acceptable in the modern era. Whether or not you believe the regulations have gone too far in the opposite direction is another topic of conversation but abuse of a sexual nature in the workplace is a serious offence.
Some of the more common examples of sexual harassment include:-
- Inappropriate jokes
- Inappropriate comments
- Unwanted touching of an employee
- Degrading comments
Undertaking any actions with a sexual harassment undertone can lead to serious implications for not only the employee but potentially the employer. It is the responsibility of the employer to advise their staff how they should behave in the workplace and continue to update them on regulatory changes. While many of the regulations are just plain old common sense, it does no harm to be reminded. It is not acceptable to give your staff training when they join and leave it at that, there should be regular updates – communication, communication and more communication is the key.
Verbal Abuse/Bullying In The Workplace
It is unfortunate but verbal abuse/bullying in the workplace can be as common as bullying in the playground. What some people see as “workplace banter” can have a seriously detrimental impact on an individual’s working life and mental health. This type of abuse can take many forms which include:-
- Direct insults
- Spreading rumours
- Degrading colleagues in public
- Constant criticism
- Impacting opportunities for promotion
- Failing to recognise an employee’s contributions
- Anonymous emails
- Anonymous social media posts
This is just a very small selection of the more common verbal abuse/workplace bullying which occurs on a regular basis. The days when employers could simply laugh off “workplace banter” have long gone and a failure to take action could leave a company at serious risk of significant compensation claims for bullying at work. As we touched on above, mental health is on a par with physical health when it comes to court cases, the law and compensation claims.
Aggressive/Violent Behaviour In The Workplace
This is yet another area which requires serious re-education of what is acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. There are few if any employment roles which do not attract a degree of stress at some point. How individuals handle the stress can vary enormously as can the impact on their fellow employees. The issue of overloading employees with more work than they can handle is another subject in itself which can leave employers open to compensation claims. However, there is now a zero tolerance policy towards aggressive/violent behaviour in the workplace no matter what the situation.
The days when particular employees punched walls and verbally abused other members of staff when under stress should be long gone. If any employee or employer is aware of someone acting aggressively, even if this is towards the individual themselves, action should be taken as soon as possible. There is also the issue of overall staff safety if one or more individuals are deemed to be out of control and acting inappropriately. Violence and aggression in the workplace can lead to all kinds of issues and legal action.
Encouraging Interaction Between Staff And Management
Historically, those who informed management of instances of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace were often ostracised from the main group of employees. Thankfully, the situation is very different today and employers now prefer to operate an “open door” policy with regards to communication.
Employees should be able to approach management both formally and informally for advice and assistance regarding inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Employers then have a legal duty to investigate the issues brought to their attention. If they are swept under the carpet this could lead to claims of a cover-up and leave the company open to legal action.
There are a number of ways to improve communication between staff and management and reduce instance of inappropriate behaviour:-
- Ensure that procedures are in place which let everybody know where they stand
- Define in clear terms appropriate and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace
- Encourage staff to report issues of abuse as soon as possible so they can be a addressed
- Where applicable, keep employees updated regarding issues they have reported
- Avoid conflict and confrontation at all times
- Listen to allegations of inappropriate behaviour rather than dismiss them out of hand
While many workplaces have a so-called “pecking order” it must be clear to all members of staff that nobody is above the law. Any accusations made will be investigated thoroughly and all parties given a right to reply. In a perfect world, a sit down meeting with the employees involved can often help to clear up misunderstandings and prevent a difficult situation from getting worse. However, this is not always the case….
It is not an excuse to suggest that some people do not know where to draw the line. When workplace banter transcends into verbal or physical abuse, people need to be disciplined and re-educated. It is the repeat offenders who are the main danger to a long-term harmonious working environment.
Training And Literature
Whether you are working for a self-employed builder or a large conglomerate, training is vital to any workforce. We are not just talking about training on the job, but how you should carry yourself in the workplace and the subtle but significant difference between workplace banter and borderline abuse. Issues covered in workplace training material should include:-
- Employment laws
- Disciplinary procedures
- Acting appropriately in the workplace
If you look back over the last 20 years there have been some major developments in the world of employment law. Many of the more traditional workplaces, such as construction, shipbuilding, etc are almost unrecognisable today compared to years gone by. Appropriate activity in the workplace should be covered in initial training and updated over the years. In the event of inappropriate behaviour and a compensation claim, at least the company can present evidence to show efforts were made to curtail inappropriate behaviour. This may not necessarily protect them from a compensation claim but it may reduce any financial settlement.
There is no doubt that the modern workplace in the UK is very different to that of 20 years ago and unrecognisable to that of 50 years ago. We have seen various acts of Parliament covering equality and outlawing discrimination/preferential treatment. The Equality Act 2010 has outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace. Even though the level of harassment may differ from person to person before they feel justified in reporting it, anything which makes you uncomfortable may be deemed inappropriate behaviour.
A happy workplace is a more productive workplace therefore ensuring that employees work without fear or concern is a win-win for everybody. Disciplinary procedures need to be defined in great detail, the process of disciplinary action understood by everybody and no preferential treatment given to certain individuals. The recent wave of sexual harassment cases involving high profile directors and founders of companies has encouraged more people to come forward with details of their own workplace difficulties.
Do not forget, an employer is deemed responsible for any employee carrying out their everyday duties.