Bullying can be a difficult matter to handle for HR. Often it can be challenging and sometimes impossible to establish a reliable course of events, which makes it incredibly precarious to know how to proceed when an allegation is made against another employee.
This is made even more complicated by the fact that in many countries, bullying isn't actually illegal. It should be noted that discrimination and bullying are two very different matters, especially in the workplace.
Discriminating an employee or colleague because of their gender, race, religious background, ethnicity, sexuality or age is classed as harassment and, therefore, illegal in many locations, including the US, UK and EU.
It's also possible that failure to prevent or stop bullying of employees could cause organizations to fall foul of their obligation to provide a safe working environment for all staff.
So what's the difference between harassment, discrimination and bullying, and when should HR intervene?
Harassment vs discrimination vs bullying
Although they are often clubbed together, harassment, discrimination and bullying are three different matters and understanding this may impact how you deal with it as a company.
The precise definitions can vary from state to state or between countries, but when it comes to an employee making an allegation, it's important that HR and the individuals concerned understand what is meant by each term.
What is harassment?
Harassment is when an employee is being treated poorly, whether verbally or physically, because of a protected personal characteristic. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlines exactly what is classed as a "protected" characteristic and includes age, race, gender and even pregnancy.
What is discrimination?
Discrimination is when an employer or higher-level employee (e.g. manager) takes negative action against an employee, such as firing or passing them over for a promotion, because of a protected characteristic.
What is bullying?
Bullying is where an employee is treated poorly, but not because of any of the outlined protected characteristics.
Create a company policy
Regardless of whether or not it is illegal according to the employment law that affects your organization, there's nothing to stop companies from drawing up their own policies on bullying in the workplace. Many schools take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and a similar approach can easily be adopted by employers.
Although it may not strictly be part of it, this policy should complement the company culture that the organization advocates. Most employers pride themselves on understanding employees and creating a working environment that they want to be a part of. Having a policy on bullying is an integral part of this.
Get management bought in
Once you have outlined the company policy, which should include any legal obligations you have as an employer, it's important that all management personnel are trained on both how to deal with a complaint and what constitutes harassment, discrimination and bullying.
At some point, the line manager will hand over the matter to HR, but you need to ensure that the process is consistent across departments and at all levels of the company. This should then be communicated to employees, as well as what alternative process is in place if their line manager is the person they wish to make a complaint against.