Preventing inappropriate behaviour in the workplace

Shannon Chamber HR is a dedicated HR and Employment Law Support Service for members of Shannon Chamber provided in partnership with Adare Human Resource Management, experts in Employment Law, Industrial Relations, Human Resources and Health & Safety at preferential rates.

Derek McKay, Managing Director of Adare Human Resource Management has advice this week for employers to help prevent issues relating to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment following some recent cases in the media.

As part of our 2020 HR Barometer report, we researched the causes of Conflicts and Disputes within organisations to help identify trends that need to be tackled. Our research highlighted a worrying increase in organisations experiencing Sexual Harassment, Harassment and Bullying amongst their workforce. In fact, one in ten organisations stated that there were cases of Sexual Harassment in 2019. There was a slightly higher number highlighting that they had issues with Bullying, while 7% had workplace problems with Harassment.

It is concerning to see increases in such cases but by bringing these issues out, it will ultimately assist in stamping out unacceptable behaviour, regardless of where it’s occurring.

A recent well-publicised case involving broadcaster and lecturer, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shuilleabháin has helped ensure the issue of sexual harassment continues to be highlighted. And, last week, the Workplace Relations Commission upheld a woman’s case for sexual harassment against her employer and awarded her €25,000.

These cases provide a reminder for employers to review their policies to ensure they reflect the latest legislation and Codes of Practice. Not only could a complaint be costly, it can also have a significant impact on the reputation of the business.

Employer obligations

The legislation that employers need to familiarise themselves with when developing Sexual Harassment, Harassment and Bullying policies are Employment Equality Acts, 1998-2015 and Health, Safety and Welfare at Work Acts. There are several key Codes of Practice also that Organisations need to be familiar with and to use to inform their own internal policies and procedures.

Under the Employment Equality Acts, harassment and sexual harassment are considered illegal forms of discrimination. Employers must take reasonable steps to ensure employees have a workplace free from harassment and sexual harassment. The workplace also includes any place the employee attends during their employment, such as off-site training, social events or conferences. An employer must also protect employees from harassment from anyone who has a business relationship with the organisation, such as suppliers, customers and contractors.

Employers must also take reasonable measures to prevent bullying. They have a responsibility to promote dignity in the workplace for all. This should be done through training and ensuring employees are reminded regularly of the policies in place.

If an issue arises, the employer must protect the employee who has made the complaint from any form of victimisation. This also goes for any witnesses that maybe involved. The employer must also take immediate steps to ensure there are no further repeats of the behaviour.

Any failure on the part of the employer to fulfil the requirements set out in the Employment Equality Acts is deemed an offence, and may leave an employer exposed to claims for up to two years’ salary by an employee. And, where an employer is found guilty of victimisation, they may be held liable for a further two years’ salary in compensation.

Codes of Practice

While Codes of Practice are seen as guidelines for employers, failure to follow them will increase the risk of the employer being held liable in cases relating to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. Employers are required to take steps to put policies and procedures in place to prevent issues arising and if they do, have measures to address them.

The Codes of Practice outline that employers should provide training to all employees to ensure they do not behave inappropriately. They also establish procedures for dealing with issues formally and informally.

While it isn’t an offence in itself not to follow the terms set out in the Codes of Practice, employers who are challenged under the health and safety or equality legislation will be evaluated against them. A failure to adhere to the terms in the Codes weakens an employer’s defence that reasonable steps were taken to protect employees or prevent bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. And, as a result, can expect to be found guilty of an offence and liable for compensation.

Communication, training and correct procedures are key

Despite taking the appropriate steps to protect employees, most employers will at some stage have to deal with an issue of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment. If a complaint does come up, the employer must be seen to be acting fairly when dealing with the issue. Following the correct procedures is critical in reducing legal problems as well as providing the reassurance to employees that their health and wellbeing is taken seriously and they work in as safe a workplace as possible.

Just because many employees are working remotely does not necessarily mean there are less chances for bullying or harassment. Communication is key so that employees know that any protections and supports they need are available to them. Any complaint received must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. It is important that employees understand the purpose of any policies and procedures is not simply to prevent unacceptable behaviour but to foster best practice and create an environment of equity within the organisation.

We advise employers to include training as part of the induction process as well as ensuring appointing and training designated contact people within the organisation so employees know who to approach in the event of an issue arising.

And regularly reviewing policies and communicating to employees is crucial to establish a clear understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour.

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