bullying or harassment

Bullying or Harassment? How to decide which you are dealing with

Bullying and harassment, if you don’t hear these terms in the press on a regular basis, we’re pretty sure you will hear them around the office.

In the world of HR these words amount to serious but very different allegations. You may have heard the phrase ‘all examples of harassment could also be bullying, but not all examples of bullying will be harassment.’ Confusing, right?

We thought it would be helpful to highlight the difference between the two terms and look at how HR professionals and line managers can decide which they are dealing with.

The best approach is to compare the actual behaviour that has occurred against the description and definition of the behaviour within your policies. We’ll breakdown the definitions of both terms below and follow up with some top tips from our employment lawyers on how to manage the complaint.

Defining Bulling and Harassment

Let’s start with bullying. Bullying does not have a statutory definition and claims do not have to be attributed to a protected characteristic. Some definitions have been floated, most commonly used is that defined by Unison as offensive, malicious or insulting behaviour which violates the dignity of an individual or a group of people.

Harassment on the other hand is a specific claim within Law, defined under The Equality Act 2010 as; ‘unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of an individual, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the individual’.

employee complaints HRHere’s a quick example, if an employee’s claim goes something like this:

‘My Manager is bullying and harassing me. I always get given the laborious admin work because she doesn’t like me’. This is likely to be a bullying claim.

But if your employees claim goes something like this;

‘My Manager is bullying and harassing me. I always get the administration work which takes me hours, because I am the only female in the team’. This is likely to be a Harassment claim because the claimant has directly attributed the reason to a protected characteristic.

Remember though – an allegation is not a fact and a good investigation will help you uncover the facts of the case. Here’s our tips for perfecting an investigation into the claim.

Whichever path the claim takes though, there is clearly an issue within the organisation that needs addressing, so it’s time for HR to act.

Here’s our three top tips on how to go about managing the claim:

policy communicationEnsure you have a clear-cut policy, and your employees know about it

Write your policy with clarity and provide a clear definition for both bullying and harassment. You can use the legal definition for Harassment and include some examples of the types of behaviour it would cover for example, telling sexist or racist jokes. For bullying, we would always advise employers to define what your organisation deems as unacceptable behaviour and give examples of what this looks like for example, constant unfair criticism.

Once the content of your policy is defined, ensure you communicate this policy and train your managers and any other employees who need to be aware of your procedures.

If you are looking to update your policy or if you need to introduce a new one – our HR Manager has provided the key things for HR professionals to consider.

Build a proactive culture by nipping problems in the bud

As a partner to a wide range of large employers, our pet hate is when employers wait for a grievance to hit the desk before jumping in to action. Often there are tell-tale signs of a negative culture building within an organisation. Look for the warning signs of high staff turnover, people off sick with stress and a trend in complaints from a particular department or group, for example younger workers.

If employers can spot these trends early, then there are several interventions that can be applied to avoid a grievance arising in the first place.

Make complaints a priority

We champion a proactive approach with our clients, helping HR teams act in a timely manner. This mindset allows employers to build trust and confidence with their employees that their voice will be heard, and their worries will be acted upon.

At this stage it’s always good practice to highlight your processes and policies including any investigations that may take place, disciplinary processes and any sanctions which may be applied if an allegation is well founded.

Bullying and Harassment often run side by side and can be confusing, so if you are dealing with a disciplinary, check back here or view our digital learning courses which cover the topic in more detail. We’ll also be at the CIPD Annual Conference this year talking about a whole range of people management issues and how managers can effectively solve them in their organisations. Pop by and say hi if you can.

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