As working from home has become the ‘new normal’ for hundreds of thousands of people throughout the UK, you could assume that bullying, harassment, and any other ‘inappropriate’ behaviour that is obvious in the workplace has all but disappeared.
Unfortunately, the reality is quite different and conversely it is claimed that it has actually increased due to more time being spent online meaning the problem has become less visible. Victims have reported that virtually allowing colleagues into their home, whether it be the kitchen, dining room or bedroom that has become their ‘work station’, has left them feeling exposed and at times unsafe.
Although in general there has been an increase in focus from employers on the health and wellbeing of their remote employees, it is also vital that support processes are put in place for employees experiencing ‘remote’ bullying or harassment, not least because such behaviour may be exacerbated if those responsible feel they are not being observed. There may well be a physical distance between perpetrators and those towards whom they are targeting their actions, but the effects are still real and can cause considerable damage and upset; leaving victims feeling vulnerable, threatened and humiliated.
The obligations of an employer to tackle bullying and harassment have not changed just because it is not taking place in the physical workplace. For example, harassment related to a protected characteristic is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 and there is the potential of other bullying and harassment leading to constructive dismissal claims. Grievance and disciplinary policies also still apply.
Whatever the size of your company, as an employer you have a duty to ensure that bullying and harassment is not present in your workplace. Acas states that an employer “must do everything they reasonably can do to make sure their employees and workers are protected from bullying and harassment.”
So how are complaints of remote bullying and harassment best tackled?
The simple answer is that they should be dealt with in exactly the same way, whether it has happened in the workplace or remotely. Any claim of bullying or harassment needs to be investigated as soon as is practicably possible. This can be done in person, in the workplace, if it is safe to do so, or remotely via video calling if not. [But remember that a virtual meeting has its pitfalls as it is difficult to guarantee confidentiality. Also be mindful of the potential that the meeting could be covertly recorded but if this is a concern you could ‘play them at their own game’ and ask if there are any objections for the meeting to be recorded!]
With working from home likely to remain for the time being, being ready to take prompt action and seeking advice where necessary can prevent an undesirable situation becoming unmanageable, or worse still, an Employment Tribunal claim.
Get in touch
If you have further questions, would like to discuss any issues raised in this article our Employment Law and HR team would be delighted to hear from you.
Melanie Rowe (Senior Associate)