Harassment and the Equality Act

Under the new legislation contained In the Equality Act 2010, harassment is defined as:

unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.’

It may be related to any of the protected characteristics described in the Equality Act, and may be persistent or an isolated incident.  The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable by the recipient.

Harassment does not even need to be face-to-face as it can occur in written communications, on the phone, and even automatic supervision methods such as computer recording of downtime from work or the number of calls handled if these are not applied equally to all workers.

The negative feelings and resulting staff issues which result from harassment often spread quickly throughout the workplace as relations deteriorate – there is anxiety and humiliation; anger and frustration; inability to cope; absences from work; frequent sicknesses.   Performance and output suffer, supervision often becomes increasingly autocratic as managers may not have the skills to identify and deal with issues.

organichr suggest that savvy employers will update their HR policies and procedures to achieve compliance in line with the new Equality Act requirements and ensure that, with respect to harassment at least, they:

  • are very clear about workplace behaviours that are unacceptable
  • set out how complaints, whether informal or formal, should be made and describe how allegations will be dealt with and investigated
  • refer to other relevant policies and procedures (such as disciplinary and grievance)
  • protect vulnerable employees and assure confidentiality

In addition to having strong policies and procedures, organisations need to ensure that all staff are trained to understand them and have the confidence to use them, so that in this case for example, they know what to do if they experience harassment or see it happening to someone else.

And more . . . managers must be equipped with the skills to have potentially difficult conversations with staff, customers or service users.  Depending on the nature of the employer’s activities, it might also be appropriate to specifically bring to the attention of clients, customers and commercial contacts that inappropriate behaviour towards staff will not be tolerated. 

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