Dealing with complaints of bullying or sexual harassment in the workplace can really be a nightmare for employers and employees. But it’s important to get it right!

This is because bullying and sexual harassment are not just common-place employment issues to be addressed.  Both also fall under the Health & Safety at Work Act.  Causing harm and failing to provide a safe workplace are punishable by significant fines and in the worst cases, imprisonment.

Officers and directors of the employing entity can be personally liable, as well as the entity itself so they should personally ensure resources are available to put proper health and safety practices into place and monitor that they are being followed and reported on.

What can you do?

Employees who are subjected to this behaviour can suffer significant mental and physical issues arising from being on the receiving end of this activity.  It can cause stress, loss of self-esteem, lack of sleep and inability to function in their role, to name just some of the psychological issues.  Physical issues include heart attacks, ulcers and migraines.  In recent times there have unfortunately been several suicides of employees who have been on the receiving end of bullying behaviour.

Employers trying to deal with these issues can also suffer similar psychological and physical effects because of the difficult and stressful nature of the issues.

Dealing with bullies and sexual predators requires good processes and a robust approach to quickly get to the cause of the problem and to stop it happening.

If the behaviour is at a low level, it may be possible to deal with it by discussion with those involved and by making it very clear that the behaviour is inappropriate and that it will not be tolerated.  If that is done early enough and reinforced throughout the whole organisation (at all levels and in all circumstances) then there will be no organisational reward for the bully or harasser.  The values you say are important to your organisation must be supported by action.  You cannot just talk the talk.

If matters are more serious, then they may need (and usually will if you want to prevent the behaviour) a formal disciplinary process to investigate the allegations. Remember, that until the investigation uncovers what has occurred, the complaints raised are only allegations.  You cannot jump to conclusions.

Those raising complaints should be supported by offering them help to deal with the issues.  This might be support from a buddy or mentor, or range up to formal employee assistance programmes that offer counselling or psychological assistance. Those accused of such behaviour might also need support in a similar way.

Reassignment to a different team or reporting line may be appropriate.  Depending on the circumstances this might resolve the problem or be only a temporary fix (during the investigation).  If the issue relates to a manager/report then changing the reporting line might sort the immediate issue for the employee, but if the issue lies with the manager’s behaviour then the target is likely to just shift to another employee.  More work on establishing and maintaining the right culture in the workplace will be needed.