Harassment and Bullying

Over recent years bullying at work has become a growing concern for employees and employers resulting in an increase in claims for constructive dismissal, discrimination and personal injury actions for stress.

By failing to address bullying in the workplace, an employer may well be in breach of duty to provide a safe working environment. Where injury is caused to the employee, stress or other mental injury, an employer may end up losing a valued employee and defending a personal injury claim.

What exactly is bullying?

Essentially it is an attack on someone else’s dignity. It is not only harassment on grounds of sex, race or disability but can be offensive comments, practical jokes, unnecessarily aggressive behaviour, intimidation or even excluding somebody from social occasions.

What may be seen by one individual as an aggressive management style could be perceived by the employee as intimidation but it is a reasonable person’s perception of the conduct (not the harasser’s intentions) which is the starting point for determining whether there is any liability. What at face value seems to be a clash of personalities may in fact be a misuse of authority by managers, and where this is found, such misuse should be treated as a disciplinary matter, listing such in the example of misconduct in a disciplinary procedure. We think we know what we say and how others are likely to receive it. We each have our own ways of communicating through the words we use, the way that we say those words and the physical behaviour – body language – that accompanies them.

The issue is that sometimes the meaning to our communication is different from the way it is received by the other party you could say that each party is on a different wavelength. The effect of making a different meaning from the communication usually just leads to a misunderstanding, which is soon clarified and resolved. There are instances however where this mismatch is more extreme and personal and can lead to a feeling of being bullied or harassed sexually.

The meaning of our communication is not actually what we INTEND to say but the IMPACT it has on the other person.

The meaning of communication is the response you get

So how do we know people understand us as we intend? It depends on how well we know the person. Even then sometimes we can surprise people. The meaning we make of what is communicated to us is based around our past experiences, how we see that other person in terms of position and how we respond to the words that are used. The better we get to know someone, the greater the rapport and the more we are likely to trust them. Because of this, the way someone behaves with one colleague and the “banter” they have between them might be based on two or three years of friendship and awareness of each other’s values. Similar behaviour by a “stranger” might be interpreted very differently.

When different forms of communication are used, the opportunity for misunderstanding can be greater. Phone calls remove the visual aspect, so there is a reliance on words and tone; e-mail relies on words alone. It is important to realise that communication in any form has the power to be misinterpreted and possibly seen as harassment or bullying. On the assumption that that is not the intention, positive steps to clarify and resolve the misunderstanding need to be taken as quickly as possible. If it is intentional, it is important to understand the personal liability this kind of behaviour, using any communication medium, carries.

Suggestions for communication with others

  • Be clear about what you want to say if it is a phone call, written or electronic communication

  • Put yourself in the receiver’s shoes; how are they likely to respond to this?

  • Do not assume that because someone responds in a particular way when talking to another person that it is appropriate or acceptable for you to assume that you can behave in the same way

  • Make your intentions clear

  • Remember that friendships of any form are not created overnight. Allow things to develop at their own speed and recognise the response you get back.

Working with “unconscious attitudes and bias” is more difficult. If you pose the question “are you prejudiced” to a group of people, about 75% will say ‘no’, yet we all have our own sets of prejudice and bias.

Many of these attitudes and beliefs are formed during childhood and early adulthood from influences upon us from family, teachers and friends. These would include attitudes formed by our grandparents as well as our own parents and parent figures. In many cases we are not aware at a conscious level of our own attitudes and beliefs – these are buried deep within our unconscious self and are not based on sound logic.

Behaviours to be encouraged

  • Treat all individuals with respect and dignity.

  • Be aware that it is the impact of your behaviour, not the intention behind the behaviour which can be unacceptable or offensive to others.

  • Think about your own views, behaviour and patterns of speech.

  • Take seriously and act upon the reactions/comments made by others who feel they may be being discriminated against in some way for some reason.

  • Let others know that their behaviour may be unacceptable to other individuals or minority groups.

  • Take the time to ask whether certain of your behaviours are troubling or offensive to others.

  • When arranging or involved in social or other events, be sensitive to the fact that not all individuals will have an opposite sex partner or may have family commitments.

  • Speak out about how you feel and do not be afraid to challenge the behaviour of others when you feel it may be causing offence to others.

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