What is workplace bullying and harassment? (With free policy template)
If left unchecked, workplace bullying and harassment will negatively impact your company culture, your team’s performance, and the mental health of your employees. In short, no good can come from it.
Toxic work cultures are those where bullying and harassment are ignored, dismissed or enabled. But as business owners and HR professionals, we have a duty of care to create and nurture the very opposite: positive workplaces that are characterised by equity, safety, accountability and trust.
So, how do you do that if you’re a startup or small business?
And what foundations do you need to put in place to encourage a positive culture to grow?
As Chief of Staff at Charlie since our very early days, I know the foundations you need because I’ve helped to build them here. And this blog is one way for me to share that knowledge with you.
A bullying and harassment policy (a document communicating your stance on workplace bullying and harassment, and highlighting the channels for reporting bullying at work) is one of the foundational cornerstones for a small business. It not only helps you to prevent problems, it also gives you a framework to follow should problems ever arise.
All employees need psychological safety in order to perform at their best, and that can only happen in a workplace culture of fairness, trust and inclusivity (think about having a solid diversity and inclusion policy for this). We’ve created that at Charlie, and it’s possible to do that at your business.
So let’s start at the beginning and find out how to get there…
What is workplace bullying and harassment?
GOV.UK defines bullying and harassment as ‘behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended’. This sort of toxic behaviour is particularly affecting, upsetting and damaging if it happens at work.
Bullying and harassment can take many forms, but a few examples of what it might look like at work are:
- spreading malicious rumours
- treating someone unfairly
- picking on or repeatedly undermining someone
- blocking someone from opportunities for training or a promotion
Workplace bullying and harassment can happen in person, in writing (in emails, notes or letters), or by phone (through calls, via text and messaging apps, or over social media).
Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is unlawful — which is why all good employers need to have a bullying and harassment policy in place.
What is a bullying and harassment policy?
A bullying and harassment policy communicates your stance on workplace bullying and harassment, talks about what you do as a company to prevent it, and highlights the process for reporting it.
As an employer, you are duty-bound to prevent bullying and harassment through your HR policies and procedures. Every one of your employees should feel safe and supported to do their jobs, and you must legally protect them from harassment at work.
A good bullying and harassment policy can prevent problems from occurring, because it’s unequivocal about the sort of behaviour that will not be not tolerated at work.
Coop's bullying policy, for example, does this clearly at the outset.
“Here at the Co-op we have a zero-tolerance approach to any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination.
We know that experiencing inappropriate behaviour can make working life miserable and take an emotional, physical and mental toll on our colleagues. We will always take any allegations very seriously.”
Your bullying and harassment policy should state who the policy is for (anyone engaged to work at the business, as well as third parties like customers and suppliers), and where it applies (in/at the workplace, and outside of the workplace at work-related events or on business trips).
Ultimately, a bullying and harassment policy sets out your stance towards inappropriate, intimidating or abusive behaviour at work, and communicates your commitment to a positive workplace environment where all employees feel safe.
What are the barriers for small businesses wanting to create a bullying and harassment policy?
Small businesses are unique, and what works for bigger companies may not be possible or practicable in a small business setting.
Here are 10 barriers that small businesses regularly come up against when trying to manage bullying and harassment professionally:
- Legal compliance
Ensuring your bullying and harassment policy complies with employment law is a significant (and ongoing, because the law can change) challenge. But failure to do so can have legal consequences.
- Resource constraints
Small businesses typically have limited resources and lack dedicated legal or HR experts to help draft and enforce policies effectively. This makes it difficult to allocate time to policy development.
- Defining harassment
Clearly defining what constitutes bullying and harassment can be challenging, as this sort of behaviour can be subtle or subjective.
- Training and communication
Developing an effective bullying and harassment policy is just the first step. Small business HR teams must also ensure that their employees are trained on the policy, and there are effective communication channels in place for reporting incidents.
- Investigation procedures
Establishing good procedures for dealing with complaints is essential. Small businesses must strike a balance between ensuring due process for everyone and taking swift action to protect anyone who's being bullied.
Maintaining the confidentiality of those involved in bullying or harassment incidents can be really difficult — especially in small teams. So the policy needs to include provisions and processes for discreetly handling sensitive information.
- Adapting to company culture
Your policy should align with your company's unique culture and values, while still addressing bullying and harassment. Balancing these can often feel counterintuitive.
- Monitoring and enforcement
Once the policy’s written, small businesses must establish processes for monitoring and enforcing it. This includes regular reviews, updates, and disciplinary actions when necessary — all of which require time and knowledge.
- Small business dynamics
Small businesses are usually more informal and close-knit than their bigger counterparts, which can make addressing bullying and harassment even more challenging.
- External support
Because of a lack of in-house experience, small businesses may need to seek external legal or HR support to ensure that their policies are effective and legally sound, which is usually very expensive.
Despite all of these obstacles, it’s vital that small businesses have bullying and harassment policies in place.
Why it’s important to have a bullying and harassment policy (even as a small business)
Any business, big or small, must legally protect their employees from harassment at work.
And as a small business, there are fundamental reasons why you need a good bullying and harassment policy.
A bullying and harassment policy:
- Aligns with your values - your bullying and harassment policy ‘sets out your stall’ and communicates who you are and what you stand for as a business (just like other progressive business policies like enhanced maternity leave and menopause)
- Demonstrates that you are professional (you should also have a grievance policy to take grievances from your employees into account)
- Assures your team, and gives them a way of reporting bullying at work
- Provides you with a framework to follow should something ever should go wrong
- Is one of the foundations for creating a positive workplace culture
Though we’re different in terms of scale and scope, like the Co-op we have a very clear anti-bullying stance at Charlie.
This is the opening sentence of our bullying and harassment policy:
“Charlie is committed to providing a working environment that is free of harassment and bullying, and where everyone is treated, and treats others, with dignity and respect. The Company will not permit or condone any form of bullying or harassment.”
We recommend that all small businesses take a similar strong stance on bullying and harassment. And that stance begins with a solid and thought-through policy.
How to write a bullying and harassment policy and what to include
So now you know you need a bullying and harassment policy, but do you feel confident to write one from scratch?
Well don’t worry if you don’t, because we’ve made one for you!
Charlie is a small business that exists to support other small businesses, and sharing our knowledge and expertise is a big part of that.
We’ve created a suite of articles on how to write fully compliant, legally robust, HR policies, which are also free to download as templates. You can use them just as they are (just fill out your [COMPANY NAME] at the top), or edit them to better suit your business.
One of the templates is our bullying and harassment policy, so you can download, edit it and use it from today.
If you have any questions about the bullying and harassment policy template, or need some advice on how to adapt it for your business, then please get in touch with me or another of our HR Advisors.
How else can Charlie help with bullying and harassment?
Even with a fully compliant policy template, dealing with a case of suspected bullying at work is going to be unpleasant for both you and your team.
And workplace bullying is going to be more difficult for small businesses and startups because of the team dynamics. Everyone is likely to have a close professional, and possibly personal, relationship with both the victim and the perpetrator. So things can get complicated very quickly.
So what’s the solution?
Well, that’s where hundreds of small businesses look to Charlie for support.
As I mentioned above, Charlie exists to help small businesses. Our aim is to make all aspects of HR effortless, and that includes the difficult stuff like workplace bullying.
Charlie’s HR Advice is a service that provides expert, bespoke and anytime advice to startups and small businesses. Through it, you can access affordable and qualified HR support via the phone, and over email or chat.
We can guide you through a case of workplace bullying or harassment, support you through difficult conversations, and ensure all of your decisions are legal and sound.
With Charlie’s HR Advice service, you’ll have:
- A dedicated expert to check your policy’s not only compliant, but also aligned with your company culture and the needs of your team
- An advisor who’ll assist you with a case of harassment or bullying — or any other employee issue for that matter — and help you tackle the situation in a way that’s professional, fair and compliant
- Complimentary policy and compliance audits to make sure all your processes and ways of working are in line with the latest HR legislation.
And with Charlie’s HR software, you can securely store all of your company policies — including your bullying and harassment policy — so that they’re easily accessible for everyone in your team.
Bullying and harassment is something you never want to happen at your business, but being prepared for it, and knowing how you’ll respond if it does, is essential.
Just because you run your own business doesn’t mean you’re on your own. Get in touch with us today.