Employers have a legal duty of care to protect their employees from harm, including dealing with workplace bullying head on.
As outlined in my previous blog, sustained bullying can have a significant impact on a person’s quality of life, including physical and mental health risks.
At Tell Jane, we’re not just on a mission to empower employees to speak out against bullying, but give HR professionals and managers the tools and confidence they need to deal with complaints swiftly and effectively, plus put measures in place to prevent them from happening in the first place.
This is our practical guide for managers and in-house HR for dealing with workplace bullying:
What are my responsibilities as an employer?
While bullying is not legally defined by law, employees have the right to expect not to be bullied at work and employers must do what they can to protect them from toxic behaviour.
Employers must also take any bullying complaint seriously and look into it as soon as possible. If you do not deal with someone’s complaint appropriately, they are more likely to make a claim to an employment tribunal – a very public review of how the complaint was handled which could harm your organisation’s reputation.
Where could a complaint come from?
Complaints are most likely to come from employees who have experienced bullying or those who have witnessed bullying directed at someone else, either by approaching yourself, via a member of the HR team, a trade union or employee representative, or through an employee reporting hotline.
Job applicants can also make complaints if they feel they’ve been the victim of unacceptable behaviour during the application process or interview stage.
While most people will report incidents shortly after they have happened, a complaint raised a long time after an incident has taken place should be taken just as seriously.
I’ve received a complaint, what do I do next?
Firstly, check your organisation’s policy on handling bullying complaints for guidance on what procedure to follow and who should handle the complaint. It’s possible that your company has different policies for different types of complaint, such as bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment.
If you don’t have a policy, take the time to put your procedures in writing so all employees not only understand how complaints will be dealt with, but that dealing with incidents of unacceptable behaviour is a priority.
Once you’re clear on the procedures, you need to decide whether it’s appropriate to deal with the complaint informally, i.e. without submitting a formal grievance, or take formal measures. Where possible, you should try to resolve a complaint informally as this is usually quicker and less stressful; however, not every situation is suitable to handle in this way.
How do I decide how to handle the complaint?
This depends on what the complainant wants (they may wish to proceed with formal procedures) and how serious the incident was.
To understand more about the issue, you will need to talk with the person who made the complaint. When you speak to them, it’s important to keep an open mind and not let your own experiences or bias influence how the complaint should be handled, or even dismiss the concern entirely. It’s possible that behaviour that you may not find offensive has a very different effect on someone else, so you must listen carefully and leave any personal feelings to one side.
It’s also important to acknowledge that it can be hard for someone to speak up about bullying, especially if what they’ve experienced is particularly upsetting, has been happening for a long time or if they’re worried about being treated unfairly for making a complaint.
How would I deal with a complaint informally?
There are a number of options you can take for dealing with workplace bullying informally.
- Have a quiet word with the person who’s been complained about
Sometimes the person who has perpetrated the bullying may not understand that they have been behaving unacceptably. For example, microaggressions can be notoriously insidious and their impact not always recognised by those who dish them out.
A discreet, private chat with the person who has been complained about to explain why their conduct was inappropriate and encourage them to apologise may be all that’s needed to resolve the situation.
- Hold a meeting with the people involved
You might feel it’s appropriate to arrange an informal meeting with everyone involved so they can air their issues and work towards a resolution together. Make sure to get agreement from each party first before pursing this route.
At the end of the meeting, ensure you have written down any agreed actions to keep everyone accountable. If the meeting doesn’t end with an agreed outcome, try another way to resolve the issues.
- Offer mediation
If the employees agree, you could try mediation. This involves an independent, impartial person working with those involved to try to find a resolution.
Mediators are skilled in providing a safe, structured and confidential environments for all parties to address the conflict together. Each person is given space to share their story and express their feelings, and they are then encouraged to work together towards a solution and commit to a mutually agreed outcome.
So, how would I deal with a complaint formally?
If the complainant is not willing to resolve the matter informally, your organisation’s policy says the type of situation involved should be handled formally, or the complaint is of a particularly serious nature, then you should follow a formal grievance procedure and instigate a workplace investigation.
Firstly, you’ll need to decide who will investigate the complaint. An investigation should be undertaken by a trained in-house professional, with no personal or professional stakes in the outcome, to ensure a fair and impartial process. They must be able to keep an open mind, listen carefully, leave any personal feelings at the door and not make assumptions.
If a grievance is particularly serious, involves senior employees or if there are not enough levels of seniority to escalate the case, working with an external investigator, like Tell Jane, is recommended.
What further support can I offer?
The investigation procedure can be an emotional and stressful process for the complainant and the alleged perpetrator of the unacceptable behaviour, so support and assurance should be offered.
The complainant may be very worried that they will not be taken seriously or they will have to confront the person they have accused, while the person subject to the grievance may be very distressed and concerned about the impartiality of an investigation and the impact on their carrier.
Offering mental health support is therefore key.
Tell Jane offers a wide range of services for dealing with workplace bullying, as well as support for fair, inclusive and impartial workplace investigations. These include thorough training for in-house investigators and carrying out independent investigations on behalf of organisations across the UK, as well as an anonymous employee hotline service and mediation. Email email@example.com to find out more.