Should sarcasm be allowed in the workplace? Are colleagues who don’t say ‘good morning’ bad for morale? Where do you draw the line between banter and bullying? In this hot tip, we aim to answer these questions as we discuss what constitutes inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and provide a policy for dealing with incidents. In assessing what constitutes inappropriate behaviour you will always need to consider both sides of the story. You have a duty to all your employees to ensure that other employees treat them decently and well. This is because as the employer you are legally liable for what your employees do in the course of their employment and have a legal responsibility to ensure that you maintain the duty of ‘trust and confidence’ towards your employees. If you do not, the employee can resign and claim constructive dismissal. Exactly the same point can be made in respect of the alleged wrongdoer as they should only be disciplined for the way in which the carry out their duties – and not just on the basis of their personality. A significant problem is that often this sort of behaviour is very subjective – one person’s bullying is another’s ‘challenging and forceful’ work style. STEP 1 – draw up a policy Define what behaviour you consider to be inappropriate. If you are going to expect certain standards from your employees it is only fair to spell out exactly what those standards are. Clearly, if any employee acts in a way that is discriminatory to other employees, they are breaking existing laws and you will be entirely justified in taking disciplinary action against them. If an employee uses foul or abusive language then this is also straightforward to deal with. Difficulties start cropping up when you consider an employee who is condescending, rude or sarcastic, or when an employee’s tone of voice causes offence rather than the words actually used. Would you wish to discipline an employee who does not say ‘good morning’ when arriving at work – or would you expect employees to say “Have a nice day!” when concluding conversations with fellow employees or patients? Would you really want to discipline an employee who is normally very pleasant, but snaps back at a fellow employee at a time of great stress (such as when the surgery is very busy and nothing seems to be going right)? Although some employers may dearly wish it, personality transplants are still a long way from being a disciplinary sanction – and equally would anyone be happy in an environment where there is forced jolliness and employees speak to one another because if they do not they will be disciplined? The policy that you draw up should cover the following issues: Make it clear what you expect from your employees This would include avoiding behaviour that is ‘offensive, abusive, malicious, insulting or intimidating’ particularly if it happens more than once. Because we are considering the impact this behaviour has on other employees, the fact it causes the recipient to be ‘alarmed, distressed or upset’ should also be recorded and this should decrease the likelihood of frivolous complaints being made. Explain the consequences of non-compliance Generally minor breaches would be dealt with by a verbal or written warning. As is usual, these will remain on file for six to 12 months before being considered to be ‘spent’. If there are any further disciplinary issues during that time they are used as a building block which could go towards a final written warning or even dismissal. It is worth expressly confirming that any behaviour that is discriminatory (that is based upon sex, race, disability, religious orientation or sexual orientation) will normally be regarded as gross misconduct and dealt with accordingly. Explain how unhappy employees can bring their concerns to your attention There should be two ways of doing this – formal and informal. Often employees are unwilling to bring forward concerns because they do not wish to be the one who gets a fellow employee into trouble. An informal approach will not normally lead to disciplinary action, but simply a quiet word with the problem employee. In these circumstances the employee who raised the concerns may well remain anonymous (which again could have been a barrier to people coming forward). A formal approach will probably involve a written complaint under the business’s grievance procedure, which would be fully investigated and could lead to formal disciplinary action. Clearly, it would be very difficult to keep the informer’s identity secret in these circumstances, because the problem employee would need to be able to answer, in detail, the allegations against him or her. STEP 2 – Issue the policy Before actually issuing the policy, it would be a good idea to obtain feedback from your employees to find out whether your draft covers all the points they wish it to cover. This could be done as an additional item at a staff meeting, or as a group discussion at the end of the day. In order for this sort of policy to work, your employees have to be onside – and it is very important to ensure that they do not believe the policy goes too far and strips away their individuality. Having said that, because it is solely a policy, it does not need your employees’ consent to be binding, you simply need to be able to confirm that your employees are aware of it (for example by signing to acknowledge receipt). STEP 3 – Be scrupulously fair in the enforcement of the policy The potential for abuse of such a dignity at work policy is significant. Try your best to ensure that it is not used improperly to target the ‘odd one out’ in any team who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, does not take part in fellow employees’ banter or social activities. Equally, it should not be used to punish people for being perfectionists – it should not be a disciplinary matter that, for example, the head administrator requires high standards from his employees – but the fact that he speaks inappropriately to them. For further guidance on managing employees, find out how the Forum can help – call us on 0845 130 1722.
Bullying or banter – dealing with inappropriate behaviour