Woolly Bully

Workplace bullying is back in the news in the UK, so I thought it might be helpful to outline the position for small businesses.

Bullying isn’t defined in employment law, although harassment is (section 26 of the Equality Act) – harassment being ‘unwanted conduct that…violates someone’s dignity…or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for an individual (my emphasis). Although this definition of harassment relates specifically to the protected characteristics under the Act, it does form the basis for many organisations’ policies on conduct for all staff.

In practice, bullying is often considered to be harassment by someone in a position of power over the individual – such as a boss.

Bullying can take many forms, but some I’ve encountered in my working life include

  • Giving impossible targets for a subordinate  – setting someone up to fail
  • Making public derogatory comments about a more junior member of staff, either when they are present or to other team members in their absence
  • Shouting, swearing or other verbally aggressive behaviour.
  • Micromanaging an individual, picking up every slight error
  • Treating an individual differently (for example enforcing applying a strict lunchbreak when others are allowed to take as long as they like).

It’s important to remember that both the Equality Act and case law have made it clear that it is the perception of the individual, not the intention of the alleged bully that is what counts – so “I didn’t mean it” is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour, although it may be a mitigation for any penalty given (something I have discussed before).

Other excuses that won’t wash include “I just have high standards and expect everyone to conform to them” (you can have high standards without being aggressive towards your subordinates) “X is not up to the job” (performance management is about being supportive and agreeing clear targets) or “I’m just a woman operating in a man’s world, so I need to show I’m strong and decisive” (a poor culture doesn’t excuse your bad behaviour)

Of course, this doesn’t mean automatic dismissal for someone found to be bullying their subordinates – an employer is expected to make a reasonable decision considering all the circumstances of the situation. So a manager who hadn’t realised the effect their actions were having on their team members might be given a warning. It’s for you to decide. But you also need to consider the impact that not dealing with a bully will have on, not just on the individual who has raised the concern but on the rest of your workforce.

Bullying allegations can be difficult for small businesses to deal with, especially if the person accused is one of your key managers. But failing to act can lead to more negative consequences.

That’s my philosophy!

There have been two recent high-profile Employment Tribunal cases that have dealt with the issue of what is a “Philosophical Belief” under the Equality Act, which would entitle the individual to the protection against discrimination.

In the first case, Forstater v CGD Europe, Ms Forstater lost her argument that her Gender Critical Beliefs were a Philosophical Belief.

In the second, Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports, Mr Casamitjana won his argument that Ethical Veganism was a Philosophical Belief.

At the outset, it’s worth making the following points, especially as they have been frequently misrepresented in media reports

  1. An Employment Tribunal decision does not set any kind of legal precedent. It applies only to the specific case in question. However, both cases do illustrate the approach a tribunal is likely to take to any dispute, so it’s worth employers understanding how the decision has been reached.
  2. The fact that something is a Philosophical Belief does not mean it is the ‘same’ as a religion – simply that the law protects those who have deeply held values in the same way as it protects people with religious beliefs.

What both tribunals asked was whether the belief in question met the 5 tests set down by the Courts. These are:

  • It must be genuinely held
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion based on currently available information
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
  • It must have attain a level of cogency, seriousness and cohesion
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not be incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others

Forstater lost her case on the final point – her views were seen to be in conflict with the fundamental rights of a group of other people (transgender individuals). (It’s almost certain that this case will go to appeal, so we may have a series of rulings on this particular issue over next few years).

There have been a lot of over-excited comments about this whole topic, including some from HR people who ought to know better. So to clarify

  • Support for a particular football team is not a philosophical belief
  • The decisions do not mean that ‘women are treated as being below animals’
  • People are not protected because of the food they eat (or don’t eat)
  • There are no onerous new “restrictions” placed on employers.

For a small business, there are three key ‘take-aways’ from these cases

  • These are issues that people have strong views about. But in the same way that saying you don’t believe the speed limit should be 30mph is no defence against speeding, your personal views of the issue are irrelevant to what the law says
  • There is no ‘hierarchy of equalities’ – the fact you have one protected characteristic doesn’t justify discriminatory behaviour against a different protected characteristic
  • Make your employment decisions – be they recruitment, promotion, dismissal etc – for clear business reasons, not because of someone’s personal characteristics.

Plato_by_Raphael

“OK Boomer!” Is it Harassment?

For the last few years, we’ve been inundated by articles and conference speakers talking about “Generational Differences in the workplace”. A minority of the HR profession (me included, for example in this post I wrote over 6 years ago) pointed out that this was meaningless stereotyping and used the hashtag #GenerationBlah to mock those who persisted in promoting themselves and their products on the back of ‘why Millennials need different recruitment solutions’.

Just so we are all clear, there is no reliable evidence of ‘generational differences’, as this piece of research shows.

It did seem that this fad was dying away, overtaken by other flavours of the month. But it’s burst back into life with the current prevalence of the phrase “OK Boomer” as a generalised insult for older people – so much so that it’s now even entered political debate.

Why’s this an issue for employers? Well, depending on the context, it could constitute harassment under the Equality Act.

Harassment is defined as one person (say a young employee) engaging in unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic of an another person (say an older employee) which has the effect of violating the second person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

While most employers would be aware that race, sex, disability or religious belief are protected characteristics, it’s worth remembering that age is too.

Whether someone is harassed depends on their perception, not the intention of the person making the comment (so “I only meant it as a joke” is not a defence). If an employee complains, you as an employer need to investigate it and consider what has been said, the context it was being said and any other circumstances. Failure to do so leaves your organisation potentially liable.

Remember too that it works both ways – so an older worker calling a younger one a “snowflake” could equally be harassment in similar circumstances.

With a bit of luck, the “OK Boomer” trend could soon become as dated as 1960s hippies calling older people “squares”. But until then, watch out for it in the workplace!

This piece was inspired by a US article called “Okay, Boomer, in the workplace could get you fired” by Suzanne Lucas who tweets as @RealEvilHRLady. It’s an interesting read especially if you want to compare UK and US employment laws!

Bart

Newcastle United go down…

Newcastle United hit the headlines for non-footballing reasons last week when they were found to have discriminated on the grounds of disability against one of their former players, Jonas Gutierrez. Apart from its high profile nature, the case has several interesting points for small business which often worry (unnecessarily) about disability issues.

The first thing to remember is that anyone diagnosed with cancer is classed as disabled under the Equality Act – no matter how early in the disease or how “healthy” the individual may appear. It seems that Newcastle either failed to accept this or chose to ignore it.

Secondly – an employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments to allow a disabled employee to undertake their work. Reasonable is the key word here – it needs to take account of the size of business, nature of the work being done and how practical it is to make the adjustment. An “adjustment” need not be some physical change – it could be that you accept that someone with a disability has their targets or outputs adjusted, or even something as simple as allowing home working if the job can still be done that way. In Newcastle’s case, it was not adjusting the appearance target required to trigger a contract extension, given Gutierrez’ need to attend treatment. (They then compounded this by an act of direct discrimination, by not picking him when he was fit to ensure he couldn’t achieve the appearance target).

Thirdly, the case shows that if you are taken to tribunal – for any reason – it is important to have a clear and convincing argument that would sound reasonable to anyone not involved in the case. The tribunal concluded that senior figures at the football club were “evasive”, “vague” and “lacking in credibility”. Contrary to the view of some employers, tribunal judges aren’t biased in favour of employees but they are generally adept at spotting bulls*t – whether this comes from the individual making the claim or the employer’s witnesses.

As always, the advice is to consider what you can do to help an employee diagnosed with cancer or with any other form of disability; but that can be balanced against what you can realistically do as a business. And if you have made an error, don’t try to defend the indefensible!

Time to ditch the Equal Opps questionnaire?

Some months ago I was working with a client on a recruitment project, and they provided me a copy of their “Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form”. It was certainly a comprehensive document, covering as it did around 20 different definitions of ethnic origin, a dozen major world religions, an option to declare if your birth gender was different to your current gender and five options for sexual orientation. In line with good practice the form carried a declaration that it was not part of the selection process and would be detached from the individual’s application; it was anonymous and every question had a “prefer not to say” option.

This sort of form is pretty common throughout HR departments – certainly in the UK – and it is, in my experience, genuinely used for the stated purpose, i.e. simply monitoring applications to ensure that the organisation is attracting candidates from all sections of the community. But something about it left me feeling uneasy and wondering why we are really doing this. While I have had conversations in the past about why so few women are applying for a particular role or that the company seems to have an issue attracting candidates from a minority ethnic group despite being based in an area which has a high population, I can honestly say that I’ve never had a discussion about “this vacancy seems to be attracting a large number of transgender candidates – I wonder why that is?” or “We’re not getting many Sikh applicants, do you think we’ve got a problem?”

Now that could be that as a profession we’re just not as aware of discrimination when it doesn’t involve race or sex. But it could also point to the fact that we are operating simply as data collectors in order to tick a box (and indeed in the traditional risk-averse HR way, storing the information purely as insurance against a discrimination claim: “Us – discriminatory? We’ve had 17 lesbians apply in the last 6 months”)

But my main sense of unease is the intrusive nature of the questions. We talk a lot about candidate experience and trust in employment relationships. Yet for many individuals, one of their first contacts with a potential employer is to be asked a lot of extremely personal questions – and then to believe that someone they have never met will keep their stated promise that “this information doesn’t form part of the selection process”.

Of course, without the information, organisations won’t necessarily know if we do have a problem in recruitment. But is there a better way to do it? One that better balances the company’s requirements without the need to pry into personal information that we admit is of no relevance to the role we’re recruiting for. I don’t have an answer – do you?