Can workplace banter make us unsafe?
Allegations of sexual harassment and bullying have been all over the news headlines recently. But it isn’t just a Hollywood issue; unwanted actions or comments can happen in all workplaces and really can endanger somebody’s health and safety
Many people view office or workplace banter as a bit of fun which is good for morale. However, banter can easily cross the line and become unacceptable harassment. In that case the employer is obliged to deal with the matter as a disciplinary issue.
We also have 2 recent HSE cases for you to look at and think about:
- The board of governors at a primary school has been fined after a pupil’s fingers became trapped in a toilet door.
- A printing firm who supply and cut paper and film for the floristry industry has been fined after a worker suffered injuries from accessing an unguarded printing press.
We hope you learn from the mistakes of others that are highlighted in our weekly newsletters and, as a result, do not have similar accidents at your workplace.
Can workplace banter make us unsafe?
Employees who have been the subject of ‘banter’ from colleagues or superiors may complain about it, before going on to indicate this is because the individual just doesn’t like him/her or, that they have never got on, perhaps due to a clash of personalities. In those circumstances the individual will have no legal claim.
However, if the employee is able to point to workplace banter which is linked to his or her sex, race, age, disability, sexual orientation or religious/belief, then the employer will have a problem.
This conduct can range from jokes and “banter” to physical contact, sexual abuse and everything in between. It isn’t just “the victim” that can be affected. Often others in the same office/department as the one being picked on, feel stressed or scared and are unsure if they should intervene, report it or just stay quiet and hope that they won’t be next.
What is the legal position?
People don’t always realise that these incidents are criminal acts and should be reported to the Police. At least witnesses should report them to their employer in the first place and then the Police if the situation continues.
The Equality Act 2010 prohibits harassment on the grounds of race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation and religion/belief. The legal definition of harassment is: “Unwanted conduct that violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.
Essentially, the legislation provides a means for the employee to bring formal complaints arising out of harassment.
Sadly, a lot of incidents like this occur in the workplace, often with intimidation used to keep the victim quiet. In a recent YouGov poll over two thirds of those citing harassment at work had experienced it from a colleague. 17% stating that it was from a direct superior.
Sadly, these victims often worry more about what other colleagues will think, or will they believe them and take it seriously. Are they going to be seen as a troublemaker? Will it hinder their career? As a result, they often end up suffering from depression and other stress related issues.
What is your liability as the employer?
As the employer you will be held liable where an employee harasses a fellow employee on one of the grounds mentioned above. This liability attaches to the employer even where he knows nothing of it. Although it depends on whether the harassment took place during the course of the harasser’s employment, the employer may even be held liable for harassment which takes place off the employer’s premises.
To defend a claim for harassment it is of key importance for the employer to be able to argue that, even if the harassment took place during the course of the harasser’s employment, the employer took all reasonable steps to prevent the harasser doing it. Whether liability should be imposed is essentially a question of fact for the employment tribunal hearing the case.
What should I do to reduce the risk to my employees and my company?
There are a number of things you can do:
- Ensure your existing conduct rules, grievance policy and equal opportunities policy are in date, that they have been issued to your employees and they have had the opportunity to absorb their contents.
- Introduce compulsory regular training programmes in these areas and retain clear records of who attended.
- Provide training for your managers and stress they must be alert to the substantial risks posed to your business.
- Act promptly to rigorously investigate incidents of harassment and discipline offenders. Take legal advice at an early stage to minimise the risk of successful claims by the victim or the offender (where disciplinary action is taken)
- If your business later faces a claim arising out of bullying or harassment, your training records will ensure you can show that employees have received adequate training in these areas and that you have taken all reasonable steps to teach your employees about what is acceptable behaviour. This will provide some scope to argue the business should not be held liable for the acts of the perpetrator who alone should be held responsible for his acts.
What should I do if I am being harassed?
If you believe you are being harassed or you know of somebody who is you should think about the following steps:
- Keep a diary and record everything that is said including times, dates and any comments made.
- Save any emails you receive, make notes of conversations or names of anyone who may well have overheard or witnessed the incident.
- Ensure that you are not left alone with the one who is harassing you, make sure that you can be seen by others whenever that person is near.
- Tell the perpetrator to STOP so that others can hear you
- Report it to your immediate supervisor. If this not possible then speak to the HR department or safety department.
Most reputable employers will investigate your case confidentially. The vast majority of such cases do not reach court and are settled anonymously and without any future employers knowing.
However if you cannot talk to anyone else or it is your employer that is the perpetrator, your ultimate course of action, as this is a criminal act, is to go to the Police
If you see somebody being harassed at work, make it your responsibility to intervene and/or report it. Quite often such a bully just doesn’t pick on one individual, so by supporting the targeted individual you may find that you are helping others who are also being harassed. – Nobody should have to work in a situation where they feel threatened.
Finally introducing Mates in Mind
Mates in Mind aims to raise awareness, address the stigma of poor mental health and improve positive mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry.
It is led by and for the industry in partnership with the Health in Construction Leadership Group and British Safety Council, as well as with other leading organisations and charities such as Mind, Samaritans and Mental Health First Aid England. The Wilkins Safety Group are also pleased to support this Charity
For more on this go to https://www.matesinmind.org/
If you would like further help on this topic or if you have any topic you would like us to cover in this newsletter please contact us by phone 01458 253682, email.
Taunton & Somerset CPD Group at The Lawns Taunton
Martin Kent our Customer Relations Manager has arranged this month’s seminar – see below. As previously requested, if you could let Martin know whether or not you can attend it would be greatly appreciated. Also, if you would like to give a talk, or know of somebody who would, please email Martin.
Our next Seminar will now be on Wednesday 22nd November. Could you please arrive by 12:15pm as we will in future be starting the presentation at 12-30pm prompt.
Our speaker for this one is Mark Richards from Savills, and you can download a PDF here on what he is going to talk about.
If you haven’t already booked your place, or if you are not on the CPD Seminar mailing list but would like to be please drop Martin an email and he will deal with your request.
Just to give you some advanced notice the next seminar will be 22nd November when Savills will be coming along.
During November we are providing two “In House” training days for staff at the British Museum in Bloomsbury London.
As well as six training days for ABP Foods at their Abattoir/Food processing plant in Langport
You too can enjoy the benefits of superior accredited training courses as enjoyed by these companies and others.
We will soon be listing our next batch of “Open” courses which we will again be running at the Taunton Racecourse which is beautifully situated in the heart of the South Somerset countryside. The unique atmosphere and panoramic views across the racecourse to the Blackdown Hills, along with their excellent buffet lunches, make the racecourse the perfect location for successful learning.
Also remember, as shown above, we are still available for running “In House” courses and are looking to add new training courses to our list.
If you have any questions about these courses or any other training or would like us to run a particular course for you, call Jon Wilkins of the Wilkins Safety Group on 01458 253682 or email him at [email protected]