In part 2 of this feature, Gillian Howard looks at how to deal with staff who gossip about other staff or their relatives, mobbing in the workplace and consensual relationships at work.

Gossiping in the workplace

Office “banter” is one thing but office gossip which is hurtful and may be untrue is another. Banter actually means playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks but teasing can cause grave offence and should be discouraged or banned.

Teasing can take many forms including extreme forms such as in the following two cases.

In Chessington World of Adventure v Reed [1997] IRLR 556, a male to female trans person who worked for the respondent as a rides technician was subjected to prolonged and serious harassment by her colleagues. Her tools and mugs were repeatedly stolen; workmates refused to work with or assist her; her car and motorbike were tampered with; and she was verbally abused by workmates. This was held to be unlawful sex discrimination under the then Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Now gender reassignment is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

In Jenkins v Legoland Windsor Park Ltd [2003] UKEAT 1155, the claimant had a withered left arm and had to keep it in a sling. Every year staff members were awarded trophies. His colleagues made him a trophy for the awards ceremony of a man with a withered right arm in a sling. He was so upset that he went off sick and suffered psychiatric damage as a result. He then resigned.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) held that this conduct was harassment and disability discrimination.

Employees who gossip about other employees’ personal lives or medical or other matters or those of their relatives should be immediately “warned” that this is unacceptable behaviour and constitutes either misconduct or gross misconduct (if they are false or malicious rumours).

Such gossip may make the working environment hostile and degrading for those members of staff who are the subject of the gossip.

If it is less serious the individual could be called into a meeting of concern to be counselled about this unacceptable behaviour and to be required to give a written undertaking that they would not repeat the gossip and would apologise to the individual whom they had hurt.

Examples would be spreading gossip about a member of staff having an affair or a staff member’s child who has anorexia, etc. This is hurtful and spiteful, and unacceptable.

Mobbing

“Mobbing” occurs when a group of co-workers bully a colleague by ganging up on that individual often to force them out of the workplace. It is done through spreading rumours or seeking to discredit or “send the person to Coventry”. It is normally malicious.

Such unacceptable conduct should be clearly spelt out in the harassment and bullying policy as being a gross misconduct offence for which summary dismissal could be an outcome.

An example of this occurred at a workplace recently when a group of workers manipulated a photograph of the teenage daughter of one of their colleagues so the head of the teenager appeared on the body of a nude pole dancer and this was posted on to all the department’s computers and on social media. They then sent the individual to Coventry, poured cigarette ash over his keyboard and deleted work from his computer while he was out at lunch.

Those involved were put through the disciplinary procedure and were summarily dismissed.

Any conduct of this kind must be dealt with immediately and clear policies need to be put in place. Staff need to be trained about not participating in this conduct so that if it occurs, the employer may have the defence in s.109 of the Equality Act 2010 that it took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the discrimination/harassment from taking place.

Consensual relationships at work

Statistics show that 59% of workers enjoy an office romance. However, problems can arise. One of the couple may wish to end the relationship and the other may not, leading to disharmony and disagreements in the office or one accusing the other of harassment.

If the couple are boss and subordinate there may be issues of “pillow talk”, ie breaching confidential information, favouritism in appraisals and pay awards, etc or even blackmail.

Policies concerning consensual relationships at work often forbid a manager and subordinate from having a romantic relationship or require them to report it to HR in order to find solutions, eg one may be asked to move to a different division or department, or the more junior of the two may be required to report to another manager for appraisal, disciplinary and pay review purposes.

Employers may consider drafting and issuing a Consensual Relationship at Work policy. An example of one is set out below.

Purpose

  1. This policy seeks to maintain professional standards of conduct at work in the event of a consensual relationship developing between members of staff or a member of staff and a third party doing business with the company.

  2. The term “consensual relationship” describes a situation where a member of staff and another member of staff or third party as described above willingly embark on a romantic/sexual relationship.

Scope

  1. This policy applies to all staff, both full and part time, employed on permanent and temporary contracts. “Third party” is defined as any supplier, customer, delivery driver, visitor, contractor or anyone who has any regular or ad hoc contact with the company and/or a member of staff.

  2. This procedure applies in particular to any members of HR who are expressly forbidden to form any sexual or romantic relationship with any member of staff or third party. This is because of a risk of disclosure of confidential information and of a conflict of interest actual or potential.

Policy

  1. The company believes that any social relations between staff is normal and to be commended. However, where a romantic or sexual relationship is formed between members of staff or staff and a third party, there may be issues of conflict of interest, confidentiality or distraction from work.

  2. Given the imbalance of power between a more senior member of staff and junior staff members, any abuse, or perceived abuse, because of this relationship will be viewed with concern. This could mean unfairly favouring the “friend” by giving them benefits, advancement, etc.

  3. Staff are strongly advised not to enter into a sexual/romantic relationship with any member of staff for whom they are responsible, ie if they are line-managed by the more senior member of staff. Such relationships could compromise the professional relationship between those members of staff, and damage the working environment for other staff.

  4. The company recognises that people do become attracted to and involved with one another without deliberate intent and that such relationships may be genuinely affectionate, desired by both parties and impossible to stifle.

  5. Should a relationship develop between members of staff or third parties, those members of staff must declare that relationship to either their manager or the more senior manager and HR. In some cases one or other of the staff in the relationship may be asked to move to a different department or location where this is possible so that the more senior does not directly line-manage the more junior. In other cases, the line manager of both members of staff should ensure that the nature of any relationship does not influence the management of that junior staff member. Failure to declare a relationship may lead to disciplinary action.

  6. The company further requires that if such relationships arise, they must be conducted with the utmost discretion and entirely outside the professional environment.

  7. If there are any allegations of undue influence, harassment or duress, or inappropriate conduct of either or both parties involved, then disciplinary action may follow.

  8. The company is also concerned that no work time is spent on personal business, so no personal emails, texts, Twitters or any internet activity concerning the personal relationship or personal matters. If personal matters are conducted during work time, then disciplinary action will be taken.

  9. A purely professional persona must be maintained during working hours and at all times while on company business.

Last reviewed 17 October 2018