Q. One of my employees has alleged that a co-worker is bullying them. How should I deal with this allegation?
A: It is fundamental that employers are aware of how to deal with allegations of bullying effectively in order to avoid negative consequences.
Not only does an employer have a duty of care towards his employees to provide a safe working environment, failure to act in this situation may see the employer facing a claim in employment tribunal.
When an allegation is made, it is important to realise that an informal approach may be more appropriate than immediately instigating a formal procedure.
Informally approaching the employee involved with a sympathetic ear may be enough for them to open up to you.
If they are not forthcoming with information about the bullying, you can introduce it to the conversation by telling them that there are routes available via which any problems they have can be addressed, and that they should not suffer in silence.
If they feel able, they may be able to stop the bullying behaviour themselves by speaking directly to the individuals, or they may require assistance from other workplace personnel. Some individuals may be unaware that their behaviour is causing offence to others and, once informed of this, any ill behaviour may stop.
If the employee would like the situation to be dealt with via a more formal route, or the informal route has not been successful, or is not deemed appropriate, then more formal procedures should be implemented using the organisation’s grievance procedure or personal harassment procedure.
This will include holding a formal meeting with the employee to gain detailed information about the alleged bullying, including names, dates and any witnesses present.
You will then need to undertake a thorough investigation, including speaking to the alleged bully in an investigatory discussion. It is important to remember that investigations regarding bullying should take place both quickly and impartially.
Any investigation must be objective and all factors should be considered – that is harassment being felt differently by different individuals. It is not considered a breach of confidence to interview an alleged bully and indeed many policies on bullying or personal harassment within organisations include this step specifically. It could not be a rounded or a full investigation if the alleged bully is not spoken to as part of the investigation.
Your decision on whether the grievance can be upheld or not – that is whether you can, from the available information, ascertain that the employee has suffered from bullying – should be conveyed to the employee.
If the grievance is upheld, this may mean some action taken against the perpetrator(s) in accordance with your disciplinary procedure.
Anti-bullying and equal opportunities policies are vital in order to set out your stall with regard to acceptable treatment of colleagues. These will inform employees of what is expected from their behaviour and also what the potential consequences are for any breaches.