Guest blog from Julian Roberts, CEO for EssentialSkillz (www.essentialskillz.com)
With each day unveiling a new claim against a high-profile figure in entertainment, politics and sport, it’s quickly apparent how rife the issue of harassment is. While each headline shocks us and creates fodder for gossip, HR managers around the world need to be reminding staff of the company’s bullying and harassment policies. Julian Roberts, CEO for EssentialSkillz, a leading eLearning and compliance software company, shares his advice on how to tackle harassment in the workplace.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted the enormity of the situation when the first of the recent harassment cases hit the press. Yet its pace doesn’t show any signs of slowing. One of the positive outcomes of it all is that more and more people are talking about harassment, specifically harassment and bullying at work.
The worldwide use of the hashtag ‘#metoo’ has helped men and women speak out about incidences they’ve experienced. This will surely bring us a step closer to openness and clarity about harassment, which should encourage victims to speak up.
Another observation over recent weeks is the ambiguity around the definition of harassment. Uncertainty over what is classed as friendliness, ‘banter’ or harassment may be one of the reasons victims keep quiet. Ensuring that workplace policies clearly state what harassment and bullying means can help draw the lines and reassure staff.
Tom Hanks’s quote in an interview with the BBC said something that could have come from the mouth of any HR Director:
“I think there should be a code of ethics posted in every lunch room of every company on the planet that says here is the behaviour that is expected of you as an employee of this company.”
Harassment is defined by the Equality Act 2010 as any form of behaviour that makes an individual feel intimidated or offended. This includes “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.
What is the company’s responsibility?
Everyone has the right to enjoy a respectful and positive working environment. Employers are responsible for providing safe and healthy surroundings where employees can enjoy a bullying- and harassment-free working experience, not just in the office but in areas where work is performed. This extends to training, conferences, social outings and work parties.
Additionally, employers can be liable for third party bullying and harassment, for example, where a client, customer or other stakeholder of a business can harass an employee.
Equally though, employees have a responsibility to help create this culture of respect. Training staff is a vital part of reinforcing this, so it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked or seen as ‘ticking a box’.
Research conducted by the TUC (Trades Union Congress) in 20152 showed that 29% of people had been bullied at work, with 34% of women suffering compared to 23% of men. In 72% of cases, the perpetrator was a manager.
Leading by example will help influence behaviour, attitude and the thoughts of others. The first step is ensuring that there is a clear bullying, harassment and discrimination policy. Implementing it should not be the last step in the process. Enforcing and communicating a policy effectively is more difficult than some may think, especially when ensuring that it’s understood by all employees.
When employees know what procedures to follow and who to consult if they have been affected by bullying and harassment in the workplace, it’s important to strictly follow the steps put in place for reporting incidences. If the policy is to report to line managers, they will also need to be trained and informed of the process and next actions to be sure that the complaint or concern has been followed up in the correct manner. However, bearing in mind the statistics above, there must be a reporting route in place to bypass a line manager where necessary.
With so many stages to implementing a policy, conducting training and following procedures, it’s clear that training at each stage is vital to support compliance. Training staff at all levels is fundamental in providing employees with the necessary knowledge, information and guidance to help reduce and manage bullying and harassment in an organisation. For any policy to hold up, training should be ongoing and reinforced periodically for all employees.
As a minimum, an employer should ensure that the entire workforce is educated on their responsibility to comply with Equality & Diversity legislation (which covers bullying). Tom Hanks is right – every organisation should have a written Code of Conduct, but instead of pinning it to the wall, it needs to be distributed using a system that provides a full audit trail, showing both understanding and acceptance.
If this trail is in place then, in the worst-case scenario of a complaint and subsequent HR investigation, it becomes so much easier to prove a policy breach. Where there is clear proof of bullying or harassment, the audit trail makes it impossible for the perpetrator to claim they were unaware that their behaviour was inappropriate or that they did not know about the specific standards the organisation expects.
Training courses come in many forms. Interactive eLearning is a green and cost-effective way of educating your workforce, 24/7 and in any location. Online courses grant greater accountability and audit capability to help break down training barriers to ensure businesses embrace a learning agenda.
Creating a working environment that embraces all people free from discrimination is a continual challenge for employers. There is a duty to be a responsible employer and to provide a safe environment where employees and customers are treated fairly and equally and feel secure and out of harm while in the workplace.
If adequate time is spent understanding the responsibilities of the organisation as well as individual employees, and proactive planning is followed through, these are the building blocks to providing a comfortable, safe and secure working environment. Attitude, policy and training are key elements for success, and the long-term benefits for employees and the company will be apparent for years to come.