Incidents of workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination never seem to be far from the headlines. But while the three forms of misconduct are often lumped together, bullying is especially difficult to address as there is no legal definition for it in the UK.

According to the Equality Act of 2010, harassment is defined as “creating an intimidating, hostile or degrading environment”; while discrimination focuses on the unfavourable treatment of people in relation to protected characteristics. Bullying, however, has no such legal definition and is notoriously difficult to prosecute as a result.

While not illegal, bullying does often go against the Code of Conduct and in some cases, this influences legal justice. In December 2020, an employee at a Lloyd’s of London underwriter was found to have suffered “significant incidents of bullying” in 2019, winning an employment tribunal lawsuit, which will result in his ex-employer, Talbot Underwriting, paying out financial compensation as well as suffering reputational damage from the mainstream headlines.

Conduct versus culture

The problem is that while conduct sets out the rules for expected behaviour, culture is what actually happens, which translates into an environment more as ‘do as I do’, than ‘do as I say’. There is, however, a sea-change taking place and whether you believe it is driven by an increasing mix of Millennials in the workforce, a growing social consciousness around injustice, or some other factor matters not. What’s clear is that the ‘profit at any cost’ pressure-driven mentality is being eroded in favour of a multi-stakeholder approach that benefits the social good.

Employees want to work for, and customers want to buy from, companies that reflect their own values under the belief that prioritising ethics or good behaviour, does not come at the expense of financial performance. In fact, when Ethisphere, an institute that benchmarks business practices, listed the world’s most ethical companies in early 2020, the share price of businesses on the list had on average outperformed an index of comparable large companies by 13.5% over the preceding five years.

Building a culture of integrity

It is absolutely true however, that conduct and compliance are the cornerstones of company culture. Every law and code that a company must adhere to is in place to protect customers, employees, society, and the environment in general. Ultimately, of course, it protects the business too as such breaches incur costly fines and significant reputational damage. Thus, a true measure of a company’s integrity can be taken from an exercise in observation – where bullying or harassment flourish, you will likely find neglected safety protocols, careless use of protected data, and incidents of white-collar crime. In short, there’s no smoke without fire.

The perennial problem for HR leaders is getting the people who know when something is wrong to tell you about it. Creating a culture where employees will come forward about the entire spectrum of misconduct from bullying and harassment through to bribery and corruption, is not an easy task and certainly not one that can be solved by policies alone or by archaic tools.

Emily Hawkins-Longley, Group People Director at M&C Saatchi, gives an insight into how the advertising giant has responded to COVID and the growing focus on equality, in another industry that has a chequered past in relation to interpersonal conduct:

What we found in 2020 was there were a lot of new challenges for our company and like many, the feelings of employee uncertainty around racism and discrimination have definitely come into a focus because of COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement. So it’s important to have tools in place so that employees can raise things that they want to make sure the business is acting on.

The ad giant’s focus on technological solutions to transform HR was accelerated by the pandemic and one of the key deployments was a listening tool for things that employees might need to speak up about. This initiative formed part of the company’s diversity and inclusion strategy but was also a way that leadership can demonstrate integrity and that the company is an ethical business. “How can we know where we’re going wrong if we don’t hear what’s going on with our employees?” said Hawkins-Longley.

The key ingredient is the normalisation of speak up culture. By making the process of raising a concern easy, frictionless, and accessible, employees will feel the action of submitting a report is not ‘a big deal’ and they will feel confident and protected. The business then gets to deal with the situation before it blows up. This relationship is only enabled through the application of new technology designed to create trust between the employee and employer directly, removing the need for mediators, third parties, and ideally, lawyers.

Empowering employees to speak up confidentially also has applications for those that have decided to leave the business. M&C Saatchi reminds existing employees they can use their speak up platform even after they’ve departed as in exit interviews people tend to be somewhat conservative but giving leavers an anonymous channel to report through has raised points they might otherwise have failed to capture.

Hawkins-Longley continued:

I would recommend that all employers look at communication tools within their business and look at the kinds of things that you want to be able to hear from your employees. I think there is something in being brave and in putting yourself out there and saying that we do want to hear what’s going on. It also holds the business to account because you’re able to respond even to anonymous employees and let them know they’ve been heard.

In order to really understand their culture, to either change it or maintain it, companies have to make it easy not just for employees to speak up but for key stakeholders to listen and respond appropriately. The two main stewards of company culture are HR and Compliance and both functions must work together in ensuring that the business as an entity behaves ethically by helping people feel safe enough to speak up when something is wrong.





Neta Meidav is co-founder and CEO of Vault Platform, a tech company disrupting workplace misconduct reporting and resolution.

Neta worked as a senior adviser to the UK Government for over ten years and is a knowledgeable resource on solutions for creating ethical workplace culture.