Every employer wants a workplace where things run smoothly and employees are able to contribute their best work. Unfortunately, it’s all too often the case that one or two employees spoil this by behaving abusively towards others. Sometimes this occurs in situations where particular employees have been given authority over others, but it can also happen between colleagues on the same level. It’s often triggered by a personality clash, by prejudice or simply by a desire to wield power, but whatever the case, it can have devastating effects on the victims and on the organisation. It can even create legal problems for the company. So, what do you need to know about it?
Types of abusive behaviour
Abusive behaviour can take many forms. It isn’t always as obvious as shouting or physical aggression. It can involve undermining someone’s work or spreading nasty rumours about them, ridiculing them or repeatedly excluding them from group activities. It can mean overloading them with work and then complaining when they struggle to keep up, or repeatedly refusing them the opportunity for well-earned promotion. Sometimes it involves sexual harassment. This is something which employees can find particularly difficult to talk about. Employers can help by making clear that they are always ready to listen to employee concerns, by keeping such conversations confidential, and by keeping their eyes open for signs of hidden problems.
An employer’s duty
As an employer, you have a legal duty to protect your employees from bullying and harassment. Under the terms of the Equality Act (2010) you must also ensure that they are not discriminated against on grounds of age, disability, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or transgender status. In the eyes of the law, employers are usually responsible for the actions of their employees, which means that if one of your employees is harmed by another, you could be in trouble. Harm doesn’t just mean obvious physical injury. If an employee ends up being diagnosed with stress caused by workplace bullying, for instance, your business could be asked to pay compensation. The only way to protect yourself in this situation is to show that you have taken reasonable steps to tackle the abuse.
Resolving abusive behaviour problems
Sometimes there is nothing you can do to resolve a case of workplace abuse short of firing the abusive employee, but often solutions can be found that work out better for everybody. One thing to consider is that the inappropriate behaviour may stem from something the employee is struggling with. There may be an undiagnosed mental health problem, in which case you could discuss counselling with them or suggest that they talk to their doctor. There may also be an issue with addiction to drugs or alcohol, which can cause people to become aggressive as well as negatively affecting their performance at work. Administering a simple oral fluid lab test to staff at random can help you identify problems like this so that you can take appropriate action.
Sometimes abusive behaviour patterns develop without those responsible understanding the impact of their actions, and all you really need to do is talk through the issue with them. It’s also important, however, that you make sure the injured party feels safe, and that your actions don’t cause the abuse to escalate or to continue in hidden forms. Make sure you don’t accidentally punish the victim. For instance, if somebody has to be moved to another department and the victim is otherwise happy where they are, it should be the abuser that is moved.
Consequences of abusive behaviour
Although the individual acts that constitute bullying or harassment may not seem very serious in themselves, the cumulative effect on the health of the victim can be severe, potentially leading to the development of chronic stress. This, in turn, can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, cardiovascular problems and even stroke. It can also increase their risk of developing certain types of cancer. Unsurprisingly, many victims don’t let things go this far and, if they can’t get help from their bosses, simply leave. This deprives the company of their skills and it can lead to them suing for wrongful dismissal – even if they resigned voluntarily – because the employer’s failure to prevent abuse effectively forced them to do so.
Even whilst an employee is in place, abuse is likely to damage their performance and reduce both the quantity and quality of work they can produce. This is a serious problem for any company and emphasises the importance of taking action to deal with abuse as soon as it becomes apparent.