A recent study by Opportunity Now and PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that 64% of UK women (aged between 28 and 40 years) have been bullied or harassed at work. A more wide ranging survey of this kind revealed that 52% of the women questioned said they had experienced bullying or harassment over the last three years. There is also a growing uproar about the working environment in Westminster. In view of the fact that bullying behaviour at work is much more common than was publicly acknowledged, it is important that employers not only protect themselves from legal liabilities, but also ensure they protect their staff.

From a legal perspective, there is no specific definition of ‘bullying’. However, the Equality Act provides a definition of harassment which says that a person harasses another if they engage in unwanted behaviour relating to a particular characteristic (in this case, sex) and this conduct has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Should proceedings be initiated by any harassed employee, such proceedings may be taken against both the employer and the alleged ‘harasser’ – a point often overlooked. The consequences for both are far-reaching and significant. With no limit as to the level of compensation which can be awarded by an Employment Tribunal in these cases, the level of award may be significant and may be made against both the employer and the ‘harasser’. This may be financially crippling for an individual and it is surprising that more is not made of this by employers when trying to get the message through. It is not only the level of financial penalty which might be imposed, but also the damage to the reputation of both the employer and the ‘harasser’ that are at stake. With these issues in mind, it is even more surprising, as the recent studies have shown, that sexual abuse in the workplace is so rife.

A brief review of the media gives a number of examples of organisations that have suffered from bullying and harassment in the workplace. The Care Quality Commission (“CQC”) undertook its latest staff survey in February 2014 and this shows that there were troubling issues of organisational culture, particularly in relation to bullying and harassment. While 77% of staff either strongly agreed or agreed they felt proud to work for the CQC, 20% said they had witnessed bullying or harassment at work in the past six months and 10% claimed to have been bullied or harassed themselves.

Channel 4 has also investigated life at Westminster, where it was revealed that young men were more likely to get harassed than women. Some 40% of young men working at Westminster said that they had received unwanted sexual advances from their older and more senior colleagues.

The damage to the reputation of organisations which are seen to allow or even tolerate such behaviour can be significant. Social media facilitates rapid spread of information and it can be impossible for organisations to prevent or contain the damage to their reputation. The recent examples of workplace bullying clearly show that this kind of behaviour arises as a result of organisational failings. It is quite common to see repeat offenders indulging in bullying behaviour, which can lead to a perceived culture of tolerance.

Therefore employers need to ensure that they have ‘live’ policies in the workplace. It is not enough to have policies stipulating the levels of expected behaviour and then leave these on the shelf  to gather dust! The employer should review these policies at least once every year, train employees on the standards that are expected of them and  ensure that any breaches are dealt with swiftly and conclusively. Access to third party assistance should also be provided where necessary, such as confidential helplines. The employer needs to show that the standards of behaviour are ‘living’ standards, which are observed by all employees of the business. In this way, issues such as the reputational damage and the financial consequences of Tribunal awards can be avoided.

Article by Jonathan Maude, an employment law partner with international firm, McGuireWood