Bullying and Harassment In the Workplace, How to Minimise the Risks

by Laura Graham, Senior Associate in the employment law team at Reddy Charlton Solicitors

We are seeing an increasing trend of employers seeking assistance in dealing with allegations of bullying and harassment in the workplace. Allegations of bullying and harassment in the workplace are amongst the most difficult situations an employer will have to deal with. The failure to prevent and deal with such situations can have a negative impact on an organisation due to poor work performance, reduced productivity and profits, increased absenteeism and possible exposure to litigation.

What duties does an employer have in respect of bullying and harassment?
Employers have a common law and statutory duty to protect both the physical and mental health of their employees in the workplace or during the course of employment. In so doing an employer must manage and conduct work activities in such a way as to prevent, as far as is reasonably practicable, any improper conduct or behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, which is likely to put the safety, health or welfare at work of his or her employees at risk.

What’s the difference between bullying and harassment?
Many people are not aware of the difference between bullying and harassment.

Workplace bullying is repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or during the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work.

Harassment is any form of unwanted conduct related to any of the nine grounds of discrimination under the Employment Equality Acts 1998 – 2015, namely gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race or membership of a Traveller Community, which has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person. Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted verbal, nonverbal or physical contact of a sexual nature.

Bullying involves repeated inappropriate behaviour. Harassment is based on equality legislation and unlike bullying requires only one act of unwanted conduct.

How do I minimise the risks?

  • Adopt a Dignity at Work Policy dealing with the prevention of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace.

The following points should be borne in mind when drafting a Dignity of Work Policy:

  • Make provision for informal and formal complaints procedures.
  • The policy should provide for a “contact person” to assist employees who feel they have been bullied or harassed and to guide them as to how the issues might be resolved.
  • Ensure that staff and management who have responsibilities in relation to the policy are fully aware of it and are properly trained to deal with such complaints.
  • Employees should be made aware that they also have responsibilities in the creation of and the contribution to the maintenance of a workplace free from bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

  • Communication of the policy is essential. There is no point in having a policy if the employees don’t know about it. The policy can be communicated to employees by way of newsletters, training manuals, training courses, leaflets, websites, emails and placing the policy on notice boards.
  • Deal with the aftermath of a complaint adequately and if necessary seek guidance from an occupational health expert.
  • Deal with allegations of work-related bullying, harassment or sexual harassment quickly. Delays and postponements can lead to additional grievances and can exacerbate the initial complaint.
  • Consider implementing an Employee Assistance Programme (“EAP”). An EAP is a confidential service where employees can resolve personal and work-related concerns that can have an effect on their performance in the workplace. The benefit of an EAP is that it can identify problems early and can reduce the negative impact on work performance. A third party counselling service provider usually provides the EAP service.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the policy. The policy should be updated to reflect changes in the workplace, to take into account experiences in implementing the policy and to keep up to date with legislative changes.

Promoting a workplace free from bullying and harassment will go a long way to minimising the risks of such allegations arising. However if you are faced with an allegation of bullying and harassment, it is most important that it is dealt with effectively and quickly for the sake of the individuals concerned and due to the negative impact such allegations can have on an organisation.

About the author
Laura is a Senior Associate in the employment law team in Reddy Charlton Solicitors. As an employment law specialist, Laura has significant experience in assisting employers and employees on the full range of legal issues that may arise during the employment relationship.
As well as providing advice on day-to-day issues such as employment contracts, managing grievance and disciplinary issues, workplace leave, restrictive covenants and reorganisations, Laura also has strong experience in advising on transfer of undertaking situations, and contentious employment disputes before the Workplace Relations Commission and the Irish Courts.
Working closely with the commercial team, Laura is attuned to the importance of seeking a balance between the commercial needs of business and the management of a business’ most valuable resource, employees.
As the firm’s risk management manager, Laura recognises the importance of having robust policies and procedures in place and has strong experience in drafting policies and procedures, handbooks and contractual documents.
Laura is a member of the Employment Law Association of Ireland and is a Registered Trade Mark Attorney.