Employment Advice

How harassment hits both ways

Bullying has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, demonstrating that no matter how high you fly, wings can be burned.

16 May 2023

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Esther Marshall

Esther Marshall

It’s behaviour that has seen Dominic Raab forced to resign as Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, and CBI boss Tony Danker pushed out for behaviour that left staff feeling intimidated.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination and harassment that is related to a protected characteristic.  These are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation; also pregnancy and maternity where the protection against harassment is subject to slightly different rules.

And while bullying itself is not against the law, it can easily become harassment, which is unlawful. Harassment is when a worker is subjected to unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic that violates their dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.  Examples include making offensive sexual comments, or abusing someone for their race, religion or sexual orientation.

It means all employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and may be liable for discrimination or harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it.

High-flying government minister Dominic Raab was accused of bullying by civil servants at both the foreign office and the justice office during his time as a cabinet minister.  An independent investigation agreed, saying that he was “persistently aggressive” in meetings and had abused or misused his power in a way which could undermine and humiliate colleagues, with Raab resigning as a result.

And for Tony Danker, a female employee claimed that while director general of the CBI, he made unwanted contact with her, which she considered to be sexual harassment.  Concerns by other members of staff over inappropriate behaviour, which included interacting with their personal social media profiles, has seen the CBI undertake an independent investigation and ask Danker to step aside.

M&P Commentary

Esther Marshall, Solicitor and specialist in employment law, said:

“Such cases show the importance of having the right policies and working practices in place, and for organisations to work on creating the right culture for everyone, especially for those at the most senior level as they cannot be ‘above’ such things.

“Everyone is entitled to work in a safe environment, free from harassment, including raised voices and inappropriate attention, whatever the circumstances and whatever their status. It’s interesting that both Raab and Danker felt they were unfairly judged, as set out in their respective resignation statements, but it’s vital that policies and culture in the workplace are clearly understood and exhibited at all levels.

“Importantly, when complaints are made against senior staff, clear action should be taken to tackle the sort of behaviour which caused the problem.  In the case of the CBI, they opted not to escalate the original complaint to a disciplinary process, responding only when a national newspaper queried the decision.  A root and branch independent review has been promised now, but some are suggesting it may be too late to restore confidence in the business lobbying organisation.”

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