Protecting young workers from bullying and harassment

This week is Anti-Bullying Week, a campaign coordinated by the ‘Anti-Bullying Alliance’, an organisation that specifically focuses on stopping the bullying of children and young people.

Bullying and harassment in the workplace

Young people in the workplace can be more vulnerable to workplace bullying and harassment compared to other workplace groups for many reasons:

  • Firstly, they typically lack work and life experience and may not know whether the behaviours they see or are subjected to by their colleagues constitute bullying.
  • Young workers are also likely to hold entry-level positions, managed by adults who are more experienced which can leave them open to being on the receiving end of an abuse of power. Again, as they are new to the world of work, they may not be aware of the rights and wrongs of certain managerial behaviours which can result in them being less able to perceive the distinction between effective management and unjust victimisation.
  • They are also far less likely to be aware of their own rights in the workplace or where to seek assistance from – and those who do may feel less confident than their other colleagues in bringing this to the attention of their superiors.

Bullying or harassment can occur even in the most unlikely settings and across all demographics, not just young people, and so when it does, employers must be prepared to handle it as best they can for all involved.

What amounts to bullying and what is harassment?

Bullying is defined as persistent behaviour against an individual that is intimidating, degrading, offensive or malicious and undermines the confidence and self-esteem of the recipient. Whilst harassment is defined as unwanted conduct which has “the purpose, intentionally or unintentionally, of violating dignity, or which creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

Harassment can be ongoing or can be a one-off serious act. It can take many forms, from relatively mild banter to actual physical violence.

Bullying and harassment can have a significant effect on the physical and mental health of the workforce as it can be a major cause of work-related stress. Employers are also responsible for any acts of bullying or harassment committed by their employees in the course of their employment and employees may also be personally held accountable too.

Managing bullying in the workplace

Allegations can be particularly difficult to handle because, in many cases, it is one person’s word against another and complainants are often reluctant to come forward, which is particularly the case for younger workers. They may also have a genuine fear of reprisal.

It is important to look out for signs of bullying and harassment occurring in the workplace, especially from young workers, which may be a change in behaviour or periods of sickness absence. When observing any changes in behaviour that you feel is unusual for the person, then raise your concerns with them and enquire as to whether everything is OK.

Of course, an employer may receive an allegation of harassment in writing, in which case:

  • Re-read your policy and ensure that you follow it. Some employers have a specific bullying and harassment policy as well as a grievance policy.
  • Promptly conduct a full investigation – try to keep an open mind, especially if you know the parties personally.
  • Don’t make any promises that you are unable to keep, especially with regards to timescales – these issues often take longer to resolve than you anticipate.
  • Ensure that you treat such allegations consistently.
  • Don’t pre-judge.
  • Investigate all allegations – start by asking the employee(s) to list all incidents, including the times and dates, the names of people concerned and if any others were present. If any harassment has been recorded on camera, text messages etc, emails or social networking posts, obtain copies as soon as possible.
  • Speak to the alleged harasser – try to listen impartially to the harasser’s side of things as well as the complainant’s.
  • Decide whether anyone needs to be suspended to ensure a fair investigation and to protect the safety of those involved. If there appears to be serious misconduct, or risk to employees, consider a short period of suspension on full pay for the alleged harasser – but make it clear to them that this is not an indication of guilt. In serious cases, you also need to decide whether the police should be involved.
  • Do you need to take any other interim steps to protect the complainant? (Take care not to take any action that could be detrimental to either party, particularly the complainant, but it may be sensible to ensure that they are not working alone together.)
  • Whilst you will want to preserve confidentiality, you may need to question other employees to see whether they are aware of any difficulties. Ask them to keep your discussions confidential.
  • Explain to any witnesses that whilst you respect any wishes to remain anonymous, you may not be able to guarantee this as you need to ensure a fair hearing for all concerned and any witness statements may have to be disclosed in the event of any tribunal claim – don’t pressurise the witnesses into supporting either party.
  • Note that any notes or records that you make that are not subject to litigation or legal advice privilege can be disclosed in a tribunal or court proceedings so be careful to avoid any personal opinions and stick to the “facts.”
  • If disciplinary action is taken, allow the alleged harasser to call any witnesses, but he/she should not be allowed to challenge or belittle the complainant.
  • Ensure that any disciplinary penalties are appropriate and consistent with any similar previous incidents.
  • Consider extra training for anyone guilty of ‘inadvertent bullying’ – this will always give you a better defence in the event of a claim.
  • Be very careful before you transfer an alleged victim, especially if this involves less pay, additional travel etc. Very often it is the junior member of staff who would be transferred. Question whether your ‘solution’ is to the victim’s detriment rather than the harasser’s. Try to see both sides and balance this against the needs of the business. Transferring employees may be a solution where practicable and where there is an obvious personality clash or where it is not possible for good working relationships to be re-established but do consult with both parties and only transfer the victim with his/her agreement. Where the perpetrator is transferred, ensure that this is permitted within the terms of his/her contract and/or your disciplinary procedure, otherwise a claim of constructive unfair dismissal could arise.
  • Consider what extra practical support and guidance the victim needs. Bullying can have a major impact on someone’s self-esteem and confidence. Might coaching, counselling or assertiveness training help?

Consider as an organisation having several mechanisms in place that allows people to seek assistance. In the case of young people, if their concern is with their line manager, then they are unlikely to feel confident in asking for the behaviour to stop.

Consider implementing an Employee Assistance Programme, which is a confidential support line where employees can seek expert advice from professionals.

Make clear that your employees can escalate to your HR department, or another manager, who is more senior.

Further advice

You can listen to our webinar from earlier this year in which we discuss how to deal with bullying and harassment.

If you would like any further information on how HR Solutions can support your business, please call us on 0844 324 5840 or contact us.




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