With many employees facing bullying or harassment in the workplace, employers need to build inclusive cultures where unfair treatment is known to be unacceptable, ensuring staff work in a safe environment and are treated with dignity and respect.

The situation

While most companies have policies on preventing bullying and harassment in the workplace, too many organisations have workplace cultures in which people are afraid to challenge inappropriate behaviour or are not treated seriously when they do so. As a result, far too many employees continue to face bullying and harassment in the workplace.

Bullying and harassment exist at the more severe end of workplace incivility, a spectrum of behaviour describing low intensity deviant acts with an ambiguous intent to harm, such as rudeness towards a member of a team, group or organisation. As well as bullying and harassment, other behaviours, such as social undermining and abusive supervision, sit under workplace incivility. You can find more information about incivility and bullying at work in our evidence review.

CIPD research shows that 15% of employees had experienced bullying over the past three years, with 8% reporting harassment and 4% sexual harassment. The findings show how bullying and harassment can occur across a wide spectrum of behaviour, ranging from extreme forms of intimidation, such as physical violence to more subtle forms such as an inappropriate joke or ignoring someone.

CIPD viewpoint

Organisations should not tolerate any form of unfair treatment such as bullying or harassment. Though some of the reasons for this are obvious (legal and reputational risk, work and underperformance), employers also have a duty of care to ensure that employees work in a safe environment, are treated with respect, and enjoy quality of working life.

Workers subjected to bullying or harassment can experience high stress, loss of confidence and motivation and higher levels of sickness absence, all of which may lead to increased staff turnover and less productive teams.

Employers should have clear policies on dignity and respect at work, highlighting the behaviours expected by all employees. Managers at all levels should understand their role in leading by example, challenging inappropriate behaviour, and responding promptly and consistently to any complaints of bullying or harassment.

All allegations of bullying and harassment should be taken seriously and managed consistently, with formal action taken where necessary.

Actions for Government

  • Narrow the gap between legislative compliance and workplace practice by partnering with organisations like the CIPD, Acas and the EHRC to raise awareness of employers' obligations and to ensure advice and guidance for dealing with bullying and harassment is consistent and accessible.

  • Support a ‘Know your rights’ campaign in partnership with bodies like the CIPD, Acas and Citizens Advice, trade unions, and professional bodies to ensure that the workforce is aware of their rights at work and how to raise issues of concern.

  • HR’s watchdog role is missing from small and micro businesses, which often have very limited/no HR knowledge or expertise. Invest in improving the quality of HR support to small firms delivered at a local level via programmes like the CIPD People Skills Hub (successfully piloted in a number of areas).

Recommendations for employers

  • Put in place a robust and well-communicated policy that clearly articulates the organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work, and the behaviours expected.

  • Build an inclusive workplace climate based on tolerance and acceptance of every individual. Positive relationships at work should be underpinned by an open and collaborative management style, good teamworking, and healthy interactions with peers and managers.

  • Use training and guidance to ensure that senior leaders and managers role-model and champion the correct behaviours.

  • Ensure there are mechanisms for personal accountability, particularly for those in positions of influence or those with discretionary or decision-making power.

  • Train line managers to manage people properly, including spotting and dealing promptly with inappropriate behaviour, conflict or other situations that could escalate into harassment and bullying.

  • Implement procedures and training to ensure there are clear procedures for making a complaint. All complaints should be investigated fully and formal grievances resolved in line with the Acas Code of Practice on grievance and disciplinary procedures.

  • Treat formal allegations of harassment, bullying or any intimidating behaviour as a disciplinary offence.

  • People should be encouraged/rewarded to play their part in making the policies a reality and to challenge inappropriate behaviour.

CIPD resources and references

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