How harassment hits both ways

Status does not confer special protection when it comes to bullying or sexual harassment

Bullying has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, demonstrating that no matter how high you fly, wings can be burned.

It’s behaviour that has seen Dominic Raab forced to resign as deputy prime minister and justice secretary, and CBI boss Tony Danker pushed out for behaviour that left staff feeling intimidated.

“Such cases show the importance of having the right policies and working practices in place, and for organisations to work on creating the right culture for everyone, especially for those at the most senior level as they cannot be ‘above’ such things,” explained Miss Amy Cusworth, employment expert with Rotherham Town solicitors Oxley & Coward Solicitors LLP.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination and harassment that is related to a protected characteristic.  These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation; also pregnancy and maternity where the protection against harassment is subject to slightly different rules.

And while bullying itself is not against the law, it can easily become harassment, which is unlawful. Harassment is when a worker is subjected to unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.  Examples include making offensive sexual comments, or abusing someone for their race, religion or sexual orientation.

It means all employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and may be liable for discrimination or harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

High-flying government minister Dominic Raab was accused of bullying by civil servants at both the foreign office and the justice office during his time as a cabinet minister.  An independent investigation agreed, saying that he was “persistently aggressive” in meetings and had abused or misused his power in a way which could undermine and humiliate colleagues, with Raab resigning as a result.

And for Tony Danker, a female employee claimed that while director general of the CBI, he made unwanted contact with her, which she considered to be sexual harassment.  Concerns by other members of staff over inappropriate behaviour, which included interacting with their personal social media profiles, has seen the CBI undertake an independent investigation and ask Danker to step aside.

“Everyone is entitled to work in a safe environment, free from harassment, including raised voices and inappropriate attention, whatever the circumstances and whatever their status,” explained Miss Amy Cusworth, employment expert with Rotherham Town solicitors Oxley & Coward Solicitors LLP.  “It’s interesting that both Raab and Danker felt they were unfairly judged, as set out in their respective resignation statements, but it’s vital that policies and culture in the workplace are clearly understood and exhibited at all levels.

“Importantly, when complaints are made against senior staff, clear action should be taken to tackle the sort of behaviour which caused the problem.  In the case of the CBI, they opted not to escalate the original complaint to a disciplinary process, responding only when a national newspaper queried the decision.  A root and branch independent review has been promised now, but some are suggesting it may be too late to restore confidence in the business lobbying organisation.”

But bullying is not confined to those in more senior positions and a regular review can help uncover instances of bullying at all levels and identify routes to resolve tricky relationships.  One recent case highlighted the challenges that can arise, here for a manager in charge of a neurodiverse employee who exhibited challenging behaviour, at times reducing the manager to tears.  Reviewing the case of McQueen v General Optical Council the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld a decision that the employee had not been discriminated against when he was disciplined for aggressive and disruptive conduct, which he had argued was due to his recognised disability.

Miss Amy Cusworth added: “This case was complex, and employers can’t assume it provides a template for a similar situation, but it does demonstrate how an individual may feel they can expect ‘special’ treatment and are allowed to behave differently to others, whether through seniority or for other complex reasons, such as here.”

[This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.]

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