“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

MPs and Constructive Dismissal

MPs and Constructive Dismissal

One of the side products of this week’s decision by a group of Tory and Labour MPs to quit their parties and sit as an independent group was a somewhat heated discussion on parts of social media as to whether some of them, particularly Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger, would be able to claim constructive dismissal over their alleged treatment by their party organisations.

The first thing to say is that MPs are not employees of their political parties, so the simple answer is no. But as constructive dismissal is something that worries many small employers, it’s worth clarifying what it is – and isn’t.

Constructive dismissal is behaviour by the employer that is so awful that the employee can consider that they no longer have any trust or confidence in the organisation they work for and resigns as a consequence. It can be thought of in some respects as the opposite of gross misconduct (a situation where an employee commits an act that the employer can no longer have any trust or confidence in them, e.g. stealing, assault, leaking commercial secrets to a competitor etc).

It could be a single act by an employer, such as unilaterally reducing someone’s pay or demoting them to a lower grade. It might be humiliating someone in the presence of their colleagues and subordinates (this Gordon Ramsay clip is a good example – warning contains strong language). It can also be the final straw in a series of events which allows the person to conclude they can no longer work there.

It’s also worth remembering that an employer is responsible for the behaviour of their staff. So, if an organisation ignored or failed to deal with allegations of bullying, harassment, insulting or threatening behaviour against an individual employee by their colleagues, which then led to the individual resigning, they could be deemed to have constructively dismissed the employee.

Constructive dismissal isn’t a situation where an employer makes a decision that the employee is unhappy about (I’ve been asked questions about in the past about whether making someone move from a private to a shared office could be constructive dismissal for example – it wasn’t). And remember that if the person doesn’t resign there can be no constructive dismissal.

Constructive dismissal is also quite rare. There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that it takes a lot of courage, even in a very difficult situation, to simply walk out of a job.  The second is that to win a case at a tribunal, the onus is on the employee to show that the employer’s actions were such that they were justified in resigning, rather than a normal unfair dismissal where the onus is on the employer to show that its decision was fair and reasonable.  Even though the case is – like all employment matters – decided on the balance of probability (what the judge thinks is the most credible explanation of events) rather than the criminal standard of absolute proof, it still puts an additional hurdle in the way of a successful claim.

Based solely on the reports and social media postings I have seen, had she been an employee then Ms Berger certainly would have strong grounds for a claim. Whether she would have succeeded would have been up to a tribunal judge to decide. But it’s a useful reminder to employers that trying to ‘force’ someone  (or allowing colleagues to force them) out of an organisation can have far-reaching consequences.

Gordon Ramsay

It was only a joke!

“It was only a joke”

“I didn’t mean anything by it”

“Just our normal office banter”

“Do we have to be humourless in work now?”

Over the last 12 months, the issue of harassment has come to the forefront of business, with issues such as Harvey Weinstein, and the Presidents Club. Only this week,  business leader and TV personality Lord Sugar  got into hot water for issuing a (now deleted) tweet about Senegalese footballers. His response – that it was a misguided attempt at humour –  is a common one when individuals are confronted with inappropriate comments.  In fact, the comments above are the usual reaction when a complaint is made.

If you run or manage a small business, you may be faced by an allegation of harassment and you need to take it seriously.  Dismissing claims as merely ‘banter’ can be both expensive and damaging to your business reputation, as this car dealership found out this week.  Investigate all allegations properly and – as importantly –  make it clear that inappropriate comments are not acceptable.

It doesn’t matter if the comment was not intended to be offensive, or that you can’t see anything wrong with it – in law the main concern is the perception of the individual. This doesn’t mean that every instance of an ill-judged comment is necessarily racist or sexist – case law is very clear that “it is… important not to encourage a culture of hypersensitivity or the imposition of legal liability in respect of every unfortunate phrase” – the point is that an employer must investigate a complaint properly.

And if you aren’t sure, take advice. There’s a world of difference between referring to a colleague as “The Producer” (because she is constantly telling her team that “she’ll put them in the picture”) and referring to her as “Sugar Tits”.

Humour is important in the workplace. Harassment isn’t. And remember, as I was once told by an Employment Lawyer, “Banter isn’t an excuse –  it’s an admission”. If you need more information, this piece may help you

 

 

 

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