More and more practices are recognising the negative effect of harassment and bullying in the workplace and are taking steps to eliminate it. If it appears that an employee is being harassed or bullied, action must be taken to stop this.

So what is harassment?

Harassment can be defined as any unwanted conduct which is offensive or objectionable to the recipient. The recipients view is crucial, because what one person may find acceptable, another may not.

Bullying is where employees are intentionally intimidated, threatened or humiliated, possibly by a misuse of status or physical strength. Harassment and bullying should be classed as disciplinary offences and employees should be left in no doubt that such action is prohibited. They should also be informed as to the consequences and damage that such behaviour can cause.

Victims of harassment should be given guidance and support in bringing complaints, and the employer should seek to stop the harassment or bullying and ensure the employee is not victimised for having brought a complaint.

Need for a specific policy

The adoption of a practice policy and complaints procedure on harassment will help employers and employees in two key ways:

1.   The adoption of sound policies and procedures on harassment at work will help to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place (see BVNA Guide to Contracts of Employment).

2.   In the event of a complaint to an Employment Tribunal about sexual, racial or disability harassment, the fact that a policy and procedure have been implemented will place the employer in a much stronger position to convince the tribunal that all reasonable steps had been taken to prevent harassment in the workplace. Thus employers may be able to avoid liability for the claim.

Having an equal opportunities policy or harassment policy is, of course, not enough on its own to ensure that an employer will avoid liability for claims of sexual or racial harassment, or that a bully or harasser will stop. Generally tribunals will examine whether such policies have management backing, whether they are supplemented by adequate training of supervisory staff, and whether effective disciplinary procedures are in place to deal with offenders.

Employers should also have a clear written set of rules to accompany their policy and procedure on harassment at work. Such rules should specify the type of conduct which is regarded as harassment, and the type of penalty (for example, dismissal) which will be imposed on offenders for each type of offence. It should also be made clear that victimisation of – or retaliation against – an individual who has made a complaint of harassment will itself be regarded as gross misconduct, rendering the perpetrator liable to summary dismissal.

The fact that the recipients view is crucial leads to a number of points for which it can be difficult to legislate. What if two employees begin a relationship and subsequently the relationship ends, with one or both parties feeling disgruntled or upset? Can either party claim sexual harassment? Well the answer is “yes” and the employer may be required to protect themselves.

One of the issues which an Employment Tribunal will take into account when hearing a complaint of unfair dismissal for alleged gross misconduct, is the extent and thoroughness of the employer’s investigation into the alleged misconduct.

What should an investigation include?

Discuss the matter privately with the alleged perpetrator and assure them the discussions will be treated in confidence. Offer them the opportunity to be accompanied by a colleague or industrial relations service during the discussion, if they wish, and assure them that the purpose of the discussions is not to accuse, but rather to hear their version of events.

Tell the person, factually, what allegations are being made, giving specific examples, if possible. Give them a full opportunity to present their side of events, however credible or otherwise the complaint may seem. Remain objective and neutral throughout the discussions, try to establish whether the person accepts or denies the allegations and, most importantly, avoid getting into an argument or an emotional scene.

If during the discussions it becomes apparent that there is no foundation to the allegations, adjourn the discussion to consider the matter, then return to inform the employee that the allegations are being dropped. The next step may be to consider whether the employee who raised the matter should be disciplined for misconduct in raising an unfounded complaint.

If new information comes to light during discussions, adjourn if necessary to investigate the claims.

If it becomes apparent that the allegations of harassment are well-founded, adjourn the meeting and review the next step, which may be to invoke the company’s disciplinary procedure against the alleged harasser. Assure the person that you will return to them promptly with feedback once you have decided what action to take.

If the harassment is treated as an offence under the company’s disciplinary procedure, follow the procedure exactly.

If you are a victim of sexual harassment, bullying or discrimination, advise your manager in the first instance and put your complaint in writing. If you are not given a fair hearing on the issue, call the BVNA Legal Helpline on 01822 870270.


Nicky Ackerley BA(Hons)

Nicky Ackerley HR Support is owned by Nicky Ackerley who has a BA (Hons) Business Studies Degree, is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and who has been a practising HR manager for over 20 years. HR Support Consultancy has provided the BVNA's Industrial Relations Service since it began in 2002.

• VOL 26 • March 2011 • Veterinary Nursing Journal