Employers are failing to tackle bullying in the workplace, warns employment law specialist Jane Hobson.
It follows a new survey which reveals that one in five UK workers have faced bullying and harassment at work in the past two years.
The research published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development shows the disabled have been worst hit with 37 per cent claiming to have been bullied. Those from ethnic minorities have also been affected, with 29 per cent of black or Asian workers reporting they had suffered.
"Extreme cases of bullying are easier to recognise but many companies are finding it harder to address behaviour that falls into a 'grey' area where one person might consider it firm management while another takes it as bullying," said Ms Hobson. "Put simply bullying can be any kind of treatment that the employee finds unwelcome, unwarranted and has a detrimental effect on them."
Ms Hobson suggests employers have a clear policy that even goes as far as to cite examples of unacceptable behaviour such as spreading malicious rumours; ridiculing or demeaning others; exclusion or victimisation; abuse of power; unfair treatment; and undermining treatment.
"It’s important to remember that bullying comes in many forms and may not just be face-to-face but can also be by email or text," said Ms Hobson. "Cases of bullying can not only result in the employer facing claims of negligence but also claims of unfair dismissal and discrimination.
"Such litigation is time consuming and costly for the employer as well as attracting serious adverse publicity. After all who would want to go and work for an organisation that is alleged to tolerate a culture of bullying and harassment?
"Individuals are often fearful of complaining about their treatment and any policy should emphasise that complaints will be taken seriously. The behaviour of employers and senior managers is also as important as the formal policy. The culture developed within an organisation should make it clear that bullying is not acceptable."
Other signs should alert an employer to a potential problem, suggests Ms Hobson. These can include regular sickness absence, particularly if this happens with a number of employees in the same department. Back to work interviews can help spot such cases or afford other opportunities for employees to give feedback on the working environment.
Ms Hobson warns employers to take any complaints of bullying seriously. "The complaint should be fully investigated promptly and objectively," she advises. "Employees do not normally make serious allegations against colleagues unless they do feel seriously aggrieved.
"In some cases matters can, particularly at early stages, be addressed informally. Sometimes individuals are totally unaware that their behaviour is unwelcome and an informal discussion can end the behaviour.
"In more serious cases then it may be appropriate for the employer to take disciplinary action. The correct procedure must be followed in such cases ensuring that the offender is made fully aware of the issues and allegations against them. They will need to be allowed to be accompanied at any hearing and afforded every opportunity to state their case and respond to the allegations.
"Any disciplinary sanction should be considered with any similar previous cases and dismissal should only be imposed in serious cases. And the individual must be afforded the right to appeal against any penalty imposed."