Bullying and Harassment

by Andrew Wood

Responsibilities and liability

Do not do to others what angers you if done to you by others.


The employer

The actions of an organisation’s employees are the responsibility of the employer, whether the harassment is committed with or without their knowledge or approval. This responsibility is legally referred to as ‘vicarious liability’.

The harassment does not even need to have occurred within the workplace for the employer to be held vicariously liable as long as it can be established that the harasser was acting ‘in the course of employment’, which could include social events outside the employer’s premises and normal working hours.

Bullies thrive wherever authority is weak.

Tim Field

Employers may also be held liable for actions by third parties, such as clients, suppliers or customers, and any situation where the employer has the ability to control whether an employee is harassed and takes no action to eliminate or reduce it.

Minimising risk

Employers must ensure that due diligence has been exercised and that reasonably practicable steps have been taken to eliminate the likelihood of bullying and/or harassment occurring.

Core to this is the implementation of a workable harassment policy. All employees should be informed of the harassment policy and consistently reminded of it. It should also be stressed that all instances of harassment will be treated seriously. The organisation must also ensure that all managers are aware of their responsibility under the policy and that it is adhered to at all times. Regular training concerning the implementation of the policy for all staff is also of critical importance.

Key point

Being unaware that harassment is taking place does not absolve an organisation of responsibility. Even where managers in an organisation do not know of cases, it is still likely that the organisation will be held responsible.

Manager guidelines

It is every manager’s responsibility to ensure that they adhere to the bullying and harassment guidelines for which they can be held responsible. Key points for managers to consider are listed below.

Positive leadership

  • Let your staff know that you support the principles of diversity and demonstrate those principles in your everyday work.
  • Consult, involve and value your staff – recognise their achievements and differences.
  • Confront inappropriate behaviour wherever you see it – if you don’t, your staff will think it is acceptable to behave in this way.

Setting standards

  • Clearly explain what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour – reinforcing positive behaviours.
  • Set clear performance objectives/targets/goals so that staff know what is expected of them.
  • Be clear about the conduct expected from staff – complying with employment contracts, local rules and so on.

Confront those who don’t meet the standards; if you allow some people to ‘get away with it’, other staff will either see this behaviour as acceptable or simply think you don’t care.

Policies and procedures

  • Understand the appropriate policies and procedures, your responsibilities and your involvement at various stages.
  • Implement all procedures consistently and fairly – ensure that you treat staff equally.
  • Use the performance management processes effectively to enhance performance, recognise achievement and deal with underperformance (see the topic on Performance Management (People).

Seek guidance/help from appropriate people when unsure about the best course of action.

Supporting staff

  • Support people, help them achieve their goals, give them opportunities to develop new skills and strengths (see Coaching).
  • Provide opportunities for your staff to share their skills and knowledge.
  • Listen to individuals who may be victims of bullying, harassment or victimisation; seek to understand how they feel, gain their trust and demonstrate your commitment to resolving the situation by taking it seriously.
  • Make reasonable adjustments for people working with disabilities (see Disability).

Individual responsibilities

We all have a responsibility to act in a way that is considerate and mindful of others’ feelings, beliefs and way of life and should conduct ourselves in a way that does not harass or bully in any way.

Where we recognise that harassment, bullying or any kind of victimisation is taking place, we should ensure that appropriate action is taken. Where we do not feel confident enough to challenge these behaviours ourselves, we should raise the issue through the proper channels.