It's Mental Health Awareness week and as such, it is pertinent that adopting a zero tolerance approach to bullying is at the top of the agenda for all employers.
Evidence shows that bullying in all its forms can be devastating to mental health. It can lead to a range of afflictions from anxiety to depression, and in severe cases, even suicide.
Bullying is a perennial problem for employers that internal grievance procedures are not often adept at resolving.
Many bullied people keep quiet for fear of reprisals or career damage. Many bullies go unchecked for years, unaware of the devastation their behaviour may cause. It seems to be a particularly British problem, perhaps with its beginnings in the school playground. But it never seems to go away. Much more teaching needs to be done around this. Employers have a key role here.
The new kid on the block
But what about the relatively new kid on the block, cyber bullying? Do employers need to worry about it? And are they doing anything about it? It’s a new concern, but a big one that needs to be addressed, especially given that employers may be liable for any act of discrimination during the course of employment.
Employers need to show that they have taken reasonable steps to prevent it.
Social media blurs the already blurred line around what “in the course of employment” means. If you go to the pub with colleagues after work and sexually harass a co-worker, is your employer liable?
Potentially, if they are work drinks.
Are Facebook posts about work colleagues an employer’s responsibility?
Potentially again; many co-workers will be Facebook friends outside of work, even if they are not really friends in the traditional sense. This gives greater access to personal information and opportunities for unfortunate and inappropriate remarks to be made. Relationships in work can then get a little complicated.
We know that social media is used for bullying, trolling, and expressing opinions in the public domain that might not necessarily be aired face to face.
It’s a problem. Freedom of speech is pushed to its limits, and on social media, unlike reality, this is seemingly OK. It isn’t always. At a time when casual racism and hysteria around immigration policy is on the rise, employers need to be on guard to islamophobia, xenophobia and racism.
Sexism too. Employers need an awareness that this can easily spill over into the office and become their responsibility if the link between the people involved is work.
So what should employers be doing to combat cyber bullying, and bullying more widely? The first and most critical thing is to have a policy around bullying and unacceptable conduct at work. An equal opportunities, bullying, or dignity at work policy (or a combination of all three) coupled with a social media policy are the starting point. Sanctions must follow for anyone falling foul of the workplace rules.
But merely having a policy isn’t enough. All policies need to be communicated and brought to life. Most importantly, staff must be aware that the consequences of cyber bullying could be severe: disciplinary action, and in serious cases misconduct dismissal.
Employers must stamp down on banter that some may think is harmless, but which is offensive to others.
Most banter isn’t harmless, and just because it’s on social media doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Employers must tell their people what they expect from them, and what they will not tolerate. After all, comments can come back to bite, not just because of possible legal claims, but also the reputational issues at stake.
Karen Jackson is managing director at Didlaw.