Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

With increasing numbers of accusations of sexual harassment (and worse) being made, and several high profile figures seeing their reputation and career vanish overnight, many smaller businesses are concerned how they should deal with an allegation if it should occur in their own organisation.

I was recently asked to contribute an article to Arts Professional magazine on how to handle claims of sexual harassment. Although it’s written specifically for arts organisations, the points are generally applicable to all small organisations, whatever their sector. You can find it here

I’d welcome any comments or queries when you’ve read it – if you have a situation where you need specific advice please get in touch

Time to Drop Discipline?

In HR, we love to update our terms. After all, we even renamed ourselves “Human Resources” because “Personnel” sounded a bit old fashioned. And the names of things we do is forever changing – we don’t recruit, we acquire talent; we don’t induct new employees, we onboard them; we don’t train them, we develop them; and while we once did appraisals we now do performance reviews.

Now some of these are actually sensible and reflect a different mindset for the modern workplace – others are however just an attempt to sound hip and trendy. But one term persists – and to my mind it is the one that should have been cast into the dustbin of HR history many years ago.

I refer of course to Discipline –  a word that the Oxford Dictionary defines as “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience”. Surely no word harks back more to the outdated command and control management style that goes back to FW Taylor and the pre-war years? So why do we – and indeed other professionals in the area such as ACAS – persist with the term?

It may be because the same term is used in the US, since the UK tends to follow American terminology about a decade later. Or it may be that we’re all closet Taylorists, believing that staff will attempt to get away with anything without a good dose of corrective sanctions. Or even because it allows HR people to get involved in something that sounds quasi-judicial and stop line managers from getting it “wrong”.

I’m intrigued to know – why do we still use Discipline? And what term should we replace it with? (A final warning for anyone who suggests “Inappropriate Employee Behaviour Modification Procedure”!)

The Clarkson Affair – what small employers really need to know

The suspension of TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear, after what’s been described as a “fracas” with his producer, has caused a huge amount of discussion, media comment and online debate. (If you’re one of my non-UK readers, or have been avoiding the news for the past week, here’s a summary of the story)

In adding to the already large amounts of discussion on this story, I’m aiming to provide a reminder for small organisations of the process for dealing with such a situation – while not all that common it happens more often than you may think.

Firstly, you need be clear to all staff about what behaviour is unacceptable. Most organisations would class fighting or physical assault as gross misconduct, which is likely to lead to dismissal without notice (people sometimes refer to this as “summary” or ” instant” dismissal – however as you have to undertake a proper process before dismissing, I avoid these terms as they imply that you make a knee-jerk decision). Many organisations would also class threatening verbal abuse as gross misconduct, especially if it has (as some versions of the story suggest) a racial element.

Even if you don’t classify it as gross misconduct, it’s unlikely to be acceptable behaviour and might well lead to disciplinary action – and if you have someone  already on a final warning (again, as Mr Clarkson apparently is), further disciplinary action is also likely to result in dismissal.

If you are considering gross misconduct, you should normally suspend the individual while you investigate matters. Someone’s job is at stake so it’s important that you talk to any witnesses or consider any supporting documentation. You may also want to talk to the individual themselves as part of the investigation although this isn’t always necessary. Make sure any meetings are documented. If your organisation is large enough, get someone to carry out the investigation who isn’t connected to the incident or who won’t be involved in the final decision.

At the end of the investigation, if there seem to be grounds for gross misconduct, call a disciplinary hearing and ensure the individual has access to all the allegations before the hearing. Remember, you must allow them to put forward their side of the story or any mitigating circumstances before you make the final decision.

And if you do dismiss, then the individual must be allowed an appeal, usually to someone not involved in the final decision – although in a very small organisation this isn’t always possible, but in this case you should allow the opportunity to request a review of the decision.

Without knowing all the ins and outs of the Clarkson case (we only have partial media reports), it does seem the BBC is doing things “correctly”, even if this upsets those who want to see Clarkson either back on TV or dismissed immediately. And it’s a reminder that no matter how valuable an individual employee is to the company, they aren’t above the normal standards of behaviour.

If your company needs help with handling a disciplinary case, why not get in touch?

(NB – some may point out that Clarkson is not a BBC employee but a freelance contractor. I understand that because of the large numbers of freelance contractors in the media industry, the BBC policy is to cover both employees and contractors. However, you don’t need to follow such a process with any freelance workers you use in your business, only those who are directly employed by you)

Updated 25/3/15

The decision has been made and it seems that not only have the BBC carried out a full and proper investigation of the issues, they’ve also carried out the process in a fortnight, which gives the lie to those who suggest that suspensions and investigations drag out things unnecessarily!