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Harassed Helen - how would you handle a harassment case in your workplace?

As promised, in my last blog, today I'm focusing on ‘Harassed Helen’. Harassment is just one grievance that can affect any business – other common complaints include discrimination and bullying and I'll go into those in more detail next time. For now though, let's be clear about what exactly is classed as harassment.

Harassment is when a person is subject to any form of unwanted verbal non-verbal or physical conduct. That conduct could be an underlying atmosphere of hostility, intimidation, humiliation or degradation or it could be much more visible, such as bullying, banter, direct abuse, name calling or people making inappropriate jokes in the workplace. Whatever form the harassment takes, it's unwanted and unsolicited behaviour.

Being harassed is potentially a form of discrimination, for various reasons. If Harassed Helen for instance works in a male dominated environment, she could be vulnerable to sexual harassment. That could come in all forms, from calendars with topless women hanging on the walls or making sexual innuendo's, but we've even had to deal with cases on inappropriate physical behaviour and women being put under pressure to go for drinks at lunchtime or after work – her boss might be making suggestions as to how she might get her next promotion or she might be put in a compromising position in the office. Although it sounds like these instances belong in an episode of Life on Mars with DCI Gene Hunt as the starring role but forms of harassment do still occur and they could be occurring in your workplace without you even being aware.

That 's why it's particularly important for you to a) make yourself aware of what's going on in your organisation and b) have very clear policies and procedures in place to protect your staff – male and female!

Other ways that Harassed Helen might be being made to feel uncomfortable in the workplace could be if she works part time for instance. Her full time colleagues may feel that she's getting more favourable treatment, or Helen herself might feel that her full time colleagues are getting a better deal – it's why legislation like the 'flexible working regulations' have been put in place, to form a platform of regulations to avoid those misunderstandings. And in the news this week the Government have been saying they want Great Britain to be the most ‘Family Friendly’ Country in Europe….so I don’t doubt we can expect more regulation on this subject.

Of course, Harassed Helen might be seeing other forms of harassment too – on the grounds of race, religious beliefs, nationality, maybe she has certain days off work for religious beliefs that aren't in the Christian calendar and maybe she's being made to feel awkward or difficult for taking those important days off?

What about if Harassed Helen is in her 20's, let's imagine she's fully qualified to do her job and yet her colleagues are older than her and treat her as though she doesn't know what she's talking about? What if she's in a management position and her staff are all in their 40's and 50's? Alternatively, what if Harassed Helen is in her 50's or 60's and she feels pressured to let the 'youngsters' take over her role, people saying that they're quicker, faster, more 'up on technology'? She may even be being pressured to retire when she's not ready.

Harassment can also cover gay and lesbian issues and more recently, gender reassignment, to protect people who want to change their sex, which will include topics that surround that, such as how their work colleagues view them and which wash facilities they use.

Disability of course is another instance where employers have to be seen to be protecting their staff. Not only in terms of accessibility in and around the workplace, but how other staff treat someone with a disability.

So, given that there are so many forms of harassment potentially in the workplace, how do organisations protect themselves and their employees against these kinds of problems? This highlights just how wide an area the equal opportunities legislation has to cover and here are my top tips for employers;

  • In the first instance, create an environment for staff where they are very aware of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This should be done formally through good quality and rigorously checked policies and procedures but also on the floor. It's about working boundaries and making sure that small issues are addressed immediately.
  • Your Harassment Policy & Procedure should set out a clear definition of harassment, i.e. An example of formal wording could be;

'conduct by any individual in the organisation based on or directed towards someone else which is unwanted and or offence to the recipient'

  • The policy should also be very clear about the steps that will be taken IF harassment does occur and a complaint is made. Everything from the meetings that will occur, to time lines in which action will be taken, details of what kinds of investigations will take place, what will happen if someone is proved right, what will happen if someone is proved wrong. There should be no surprises for staff about how a harassment case would be handled – it should all be very clearly written down and documented and made available to staff when they join your organisation.
  • You might also like to develop a Code of Conduct among your staff. Something that says how we expect to behave in this organisation, something that sets out your values and the respect we have for one another when we go about our business.

Did you know that according to ACAS, on average, it takes 9 days of management time to deal with a staff grievance complaint? That's an average of £1,400 in management time alone, without interruptions in work flow from the accused and the accuser.

The hidden costs of getting this procedure wrong are significant and it's vital to understand this process.

If you need to talk to us about your policies and procedures, it's what we do, we're here to help you get it right first time.

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