Last reviewed 16 January 2017

Dr Lisa Bushby discusses how managers can deal with instances of unacceptable behaviour.

One of the six key areas of work design covered by the Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards for work-related stress focuses on relationships and promoting positive working to avoid conflict and deal with unacceptable behaviour.

There are two key elements successfully addressing unacceptable behaviour: employees must know that they should indicate if they are subjected to unacceptable behaviours, eg bullying at work, and systems must be in place locally to respond to any individual concerns.

As such, managers need to ensure that:

  • the organisation promotes positive behaviours at work to avoid conflict and ensure fairness

  • employees share information relevant to their work

  • the organisation has agreed policies and procedures to prevent or resolve unacceptable behaviour

  • systems are in place to enable and encourage managers to deal with unacceptable behaviour

  • systems are in place to enable and encourage employees to report unacceptable behaviour.

What is unacceptable behaviour?

Unacceptable behaviour, from bullying to harassment and victimisation, may involve actions, words or gestures that could be perceived to be the cause of another person’s distress or discomfort.

While the terms bullying, victimisation and harassment are often used interchangeably to mean similar things, victimisation and harassment have specific meanings under the Equality Act 2010 and bullying is not defined in law.

In the Equality Act 2010, harassment is defined as “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.

It can include bullying behaviour, but it specifically refers to bad treatment that is related to a protected characteristic. The seven protected characteristics are as follows.

  1. Age.

  2. Disability.

  3. Gender recognition.

  4. Race.

  5. Religion or belief.

  6. Sex.

  7. Sexual orientation.

Examples of harassment might include abuse or stereotyping, judging work performance on the grounds of one of the protected characteristics, making jokes, unwanted personal or suggestive remarks about a person, making offensive or derogatory comments, or physical assault. It is an important point that behaviour does not have to be directed towards the individual who finds it offensive for it to be regarded as unacceptable.

Victimisation refers to bad treatment directed towards someone who has made or is believed to have made or supported a complaint about discrimination under the Equality Act. It includes situations where a complaint has not yet been made but someone is victimised because it is suspected he or she might make one.

Although it does not have a legal definition in the Equality Act, bullying can be defined as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures the recipient (emotionally or physically). Bullying behaviour is very similar to harassment, but it is not related to a protected characteristic.

The chartered body for safety and health, IOSH, recently commissioned a study on unacceptable behaviour at work and its impact on employee health and psychological wellbeing.

The research had four key goals.

  1. To determine the prevalence of bullying, violence and incivility in a large sample of employees working in a range of occupations in the UK.

  2. To examine the relationships between work-related violence, bullying and incivility at work and employee health effects.

  3. To look at what factors might stop or limit the impact of unacceptable behaviour on employee health.

  4. To identify the most promising ways to limit the risks to employee health from violence, bullying and incivility in the workplace.

What to do about it

In addition to lowering levels of morale among employees, dealing with problems internally can be costly in terms of both time and money, so it is in the organisation’s interest to promote a safe, healthy and fair environment in which people can work without fear of being bullied, harassed or victimised.

Acas, in its document Bullying and Harassment at Work, suggests employers should consider framing a workplace policy that includes:

  • a statement of commitment from senior management

  • acknowledgment that bullying and harassment are problems for the organisation

  • a clear statement that bullying and harassment are unlawful, will not be tolerated and that decisions should not be taken on the basis or whether someone submitted to or rejected a particular instance of harassment

  • examples of unacceptable behaviour

  • a statement that bullying and harassment may be treated as disciplinary offences

  • the steps the organisation takes to prevent bullying and harassment

  • responsibilities of supervisors and managers

  • a statement that there will be confidentiality for any complainant

  • reference to grievance procedures (formal and informal), including timescales for action

  • investigation procedures, including timescales for action

  • reference to disciplinary procedures, including timescales for action counselling and support availability

  • training for managers

  • protection from victimisation

  • how the policy is to be implemented, reviewed and monitored.

In addition to this, Acas says staff should know to whom they can turn if they have a work-related problem, and managers should be trained in all aspects of the organisation’s policies in this sensitive area.

Managers should set a good example by fostering a culture whereby employees are consulted and problems are discussed.

Many organisations find it helpful to supplement basic information with guidance booklets and training sessions or seminars. Training can also increase everyone’s awareness of the damage bullying and harassment do both to the organisation and to the individual.

In many cases, it may be possible to rectify matters informally. Sometimes people are not aware that their behaviour is unwelcome and an informal discussion can lead to greater understanding and an agreement that the behaviour will cease.

When looking at what factors might stop the behaviour or limit the impact of unacceptable behaviour on employee health, researchers found that employees low in optimism have increased levels of emotional exhaustion when bullying is more frequent, compared to employees high in optimism. More optimistic employees appear to be somewhat protected against emotional exhaustion when bullying is more frequent.

Employees experiencing high job demands also reported higher emotional exhaustion in times of more frequent bullying. This suggests that high workload demands worsen the exhausting emotional impact of frequent bullying. In addition, those with low self-esteem experience a higher level of general mental strain when bullying is more frequent, compared to those with high self-esteem.