What to do if you suffer from discrimination/bullying/harassment at work

So many people suffer at the hands of bullies in their working life that if it was all reported there would be a national outcry. Being sick or disabled does not protect you from being discriminated against, harassed or bullied. It can happen in so many subtle ways that you may not even fully realise what is happening to you until its too late, signed off with stress, demoted or moved to a role that isn’t suitable for you.

Discrimination, bullying, harassment can be so subtle that when you try and make a complaint about it you start feeling like you are making a fuss about nothing. Its not until you start writing all the events down that you see the bigger picture and what an enormous campaign of abuse you have endured.
http://www.jfo.org.uk/info/new/index.htm This is an excellent site that outlines what bullying in the workplace looks like. For many people that I have shared this link with in the past it has been a real eye opener.

So many people I have spoken to over the years have all said the same thing “I didn’t realise it could happen to me”, “I thought I was liked”, “I thought I did my job well”. Discrimination, bullying, harassment can happen to anyone, no one is immune to it. It has such a devastating impact on the individual it is happening to, it literally wrecks lives.

Since leaving work I have had a lot of people ask me for advice about employment law, disability discrimination, bullying, harassment, so I have decided to put a blog post together with some basic advice and some links to some excellent websites which will give you further information.

I am not a professional in this field, I have had to learn about this subject. In a previous life I worked in the human resources department of a large company, so have seen both sides of the situation. Please use my basic advice in conjunction with that of a professional eg a union representative, citizens advice bureaux or an employment law solicitor. If (in the UK) you have legal protection as an added component of your home insurance you can access advice through their legal team, they will if your case is good enough and it hasn’t been resolved through your employer’s internal procedures, take it to an employment tribunal.

A case being good enough to go and then go onto win at a tribunal rests entirely on the evidence that you are able to provide. The same can be said for bringing a complaint / grievance forward to your employer. As with a court case or a police investigation the word of just one person isn’t enough to prove a case and this is why a lot of people fall at the first hurdle, they have no evidence.

A case can not be proven by hearsay it needs to be backed up with documentary evidence and witness statements. Witness statements are a nightmare to obtain as your witnesses, most likely will be intimidated by the situation and will not want to openly support you by providing evidence. So unless you have a signed witness statement in your hand forget about it. What you need is documentary evidence to support your claim that you are being treated unfairly / discriminated against. Documentary evidence can take the form of a diary where you’ve noted down things that have been said or done to you, performance reviews, meeting notes, objectives that have been set for you.

Unfortunately when you are being bullied, undermined, discriminated against you become so beaten down, that you lack the energy to get up and start fighting back and that is how the perpetrator wins. When you are in the situation you can get so used to continually trying to keep yourself afloat in a sea of unreasonable demands, criticisms, derogatory remarks and policies / procedures not being fairly implemented, that you can’t see what is happening to you or you are just so terrified about losing your job that you daren’t stick your head above the parapet.

When a problem arises in your work life my first piece of advice would be to try and resolve the issue informally. Many situations arise out of miscommunication or a poor understanding of an issue, by approaching the person who you are having an issue with, you can sometimes nip the issue in the bud before it escalates. You do have to have quite a bit of courage to do this and many people are unwilling even to speak to the person due to their fear of confrontation. If that is the case take someone with you when you make contact with them, be it a colleague or a union representative. Ask the person if you can speak to them privately as you have something you wish to discuss. It is important that if you carry out this step you make a note of the date, time and who was present at the meeting, you may need to refer back to this in the future if this situation isn’t resolved. A meeting of this type can be carried out regardless of the persons job role within the company, so a manager or a person as the same grade as you. Its important that you document the fact that you have asked the person to stop their unacceptable behaviour towards you.

In the case of physical violence / intimidation / sexual harassment it may not be “safe” for you to approach the individual. Always assess your safety and if you decide you are putting yourself at risk of further violence / sexual assault just go straight to the next step below.

If the person refuses to discuss the situation with you or denies there is an issue and you feel that their explanation isn’t acceptable (or it wasn’t safe for you to approach the individual) you can opt to take a more formal approach by requesting a meeting with the persons manager or a member of the human resources department. Explain in your letter that you have approached the person involved (or haven’t due to personal safety issues) but you are still unhappy about the situation. Also explain in your letter that you wish for the matter to be dealt with informally at this point. If you are a member of a recognised union you can ask for your union representative to be present at the meeting in a supportive capacity. If you do not have a union in your workplace you can ask if you can be accompanied by another member of staff. Having someone else with you serves two functions firstly they can support you and give you the courage to raise the issue and secondly they can act as a witness that the meeting took place.

(In some cases where your allegations are very serious as in the case of physical violence / sexual assault / harassment, racial harassment, disability hate crime the person you approach may decide to immediately make the process formal. Do not panic this is a good sign that they are taking your complaint very seriously.)

Always ensure you keep copies of any paperwork  / letters you submit and also note the date and time and who was present at the meeting for your records. Its important that you start creating a paper trail to prove that you have raised the complaint should you have any issues further down the line. Keep all paperwork outside your workplace in a safe place so that it doesn’t become mislaid. Never use your complaint as a source of gossip, do not discuss the issues with anyone other than your union / employee representative. If word gets back to the person you are complaining about or higher up it can make you look unprofessional and immature and therefore ruin your credibility. Keep everything confidential because believe me in these situations you do not know who you can trust.

If any notes are taken at this meeting – which any good employer should do so that both parties have a record of what was discussed and what the outcome of the meeting was, ensure you receive a copy and that all parties have signed them for proof of accuracy and of the subject matter / outcomes discussed. Once in receipt of the notes take a copy, so that if you lose them you have a back up and also ensure you take them out of your workplace and keep them with any other paperwork relating to your complaint. Again keep all paperwork confidential and do not discuss it with anyone.

If you are unhappy with the quality of the note taking, important points have been missed or what you have said has been incorrectly noted then tell them and do not sign the notes until they have been amended. Amendments should be initialled by you and the person who took made the notes and amended them, so that if someone looks at them in the future they can see that the amendment was agreed and the notes were not changed by you at a later date!

Give the person you have had the meeting with a reasonable amount of time to investigate your complaint. Everyone sees a reasonable amount of time differently, at your meeting ask for a date for a future meeting so that you can be updated. Ensure your request is written in the notes with all parties agreeing to the date and time. For me a reasonable amount of time would be no longer than four weeks, less if it concerns just one individual. If you have had no follow up meeting after a month send a letter to the person who is conducting the meeting (keeping a copy for yourself) letting them know that you consider the length of time taken to conduct their investigation is unreasonable.

The follow up meeting to discuss their findings and a plan of action on how to resolve the situation should be held before four weeks have elapsed. In a perfect world this should be enough to resolve the issue and restore harmony to your working environment. Even if everything is resolved keep hold of the paperwork relating to your complaint. Things in the workplace can change very quickly, a reshuffle of a management team, a change in contractual terms and agreements can quickly throw a spanner in the works and your signed paperwork for reasonable adjustments, a resolution to a bullying/ harassment/discrimination complaint is your insurance policy, that the company will have to stick to.

Some companies like to hold the meeting to discuss your complaint and then bury it hoping that it will go away. They do this by not holding the follow up meeting because they haven’t actually completed an investigation. Its one of the oldest tricks in the book and don’t fall for it. Ensure you chase up the meeting (keeping copies of your letters). I would send no more than two letters, one to the person conducting the investigation and then if you get no response within 7 days, send the next one to their manager outlining your complaint, the date your informal meeting was held and that you now believe that the outcome of their investigation has never been provided to you and its taking an excessively long time. If at this point you get no joy, do not give up. You are creating a good paper trail which shows that your complaint has not been taken seriously, so the next few paragraphs will explain what to do next.

Everything that I have written about so far is about resolving issues informally however sometimes no matter how hard you try this approach does not work. Do not blame yourself if this happens, unfortunately in life you come up against people who despite being aware of your disability will make no allowances for it or that they are so used to being a bully / harasser and have always got away with it they do eventually revert to type or your complaint is buried / ignored. Remember you didn’t ask for your disability, you didn’t ask to be bullied or harassed and if you made a complaint you have every right to a resolution.

When you’ve tried to resolve things informally and it hasn’t worked there are two options open to you, put up and shut up ( not an approach I would advocate, as it will do you no good in the long run) or make a formal complaint. Every company in the UK has by law to have a Grievance procedure. Many people are terrified of the grievance procedure as they feel that it will mark them out as a troublemaker and then their lives will be made a misery. To those people I would ask isn’t your workplace a miserable place already due to the treatment you are receiving? How much worse could it possibly get before you will lodge a grievance?  Nervous breakdown ? Demotion? Dismissal?

http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1670 this website gives a quick overview of the grievance procedure and how it should be handled by your employer.
www.gov.uk/solve-workplace-dispute/formal-procedures this gives you a brief overview of the law and has some great resources you can download.
http://www.adviceguide.org.uk/wales/work_w/work_problems_at_work_e/dealing_with_grievances_at_work.htm gives some good advice and pointers as to where to get help.

To lodge a grievance with your employer all you need to do is write to them stating that you wish to exercise your right to lodge a grievance. Usually grievances fall under different categories eg health and safety, contractual and discrimination. In your letter keep it brief, factual and unemotional, just outlining what category you feel your grievance comes under. There will be plenty of time for you to give all the details of your complaint when your grievance is investigated. At this point do not discuss anything informally or off the record as it could be used against you. If you are unsure as to what your company’s grievance procedure is include in your letter (grievance) that you would like a copy of the procedure so that you can refer to it in the future. Do not disclose any documentary evidence you have in your possession at this point, this can be taken with you to the investigatory meeting.

It is also helpful in this letter to explain what would be a resolution to this situation. Many a complainant has been thrown off course completely when asked at the investigatory meeting how they wish the situation to be resolved. Your ideas about the resolution to your complaint needs to be seen as reasonable, putting “I want him / her sacked” maybe what you want but isn’t at all helpful. At the end of the day your employer will decide if the individual has breached company policy and needs to be dismissed. Your resolution should state the obvious that you want the behaviour to stop, you feel that the manager /  the individual / your department is in need of training / retraining on a particular subject (disability discrimination, codes of conduct) and that you want a harmonious working environment. Above all the resolution should be a positive statement about how you see things moving forward. Having the person /persons sacked is on the top of everyones wish list but keep those thoughts to yourself. It looks much more professional if you anticipate this question and have given it some careful consideration.

If you have got to the point of lodging a grievance, your paperwork trail should be quite impressive. It should include your diary detailing when meetings were held and who with, the diary should also record any derogatory comments that were made / actions taken against you etc these entries should dated and a note made of the person responsible. Any meetings that you have attended such as performance reviews ( you should ask for a copy of these for your own records), attendance meetings when they happened and what was discussed – copies of notes signed by all present. Any written requests that you have previously handed in such as a request for a meeting about reasonable adjustments www.gov.uk/equality-act-2010-guidance, or informal meetings to resolve the initial complaint before it escalated. If you can obtain witness statements get them,  however these are notoriously difficult to obtain as people fear for their own jobs and what if your grievance is not upheld and you all have to continue working with the perpetrator?

Along with the paperwork it’s also good to have a copy of your contract (especially in disputes about terms and conditions) a staff handbook if your company is large enough to have one, your training record and any other work related paperwork. If you have things like customer letters stating how lovely you were when dealing with them, include those as well as they can help in performance issues.

Your employer should acknowledge your grievance by writing in a timely manner, I would say no longer than seven days. Some companies state in their staff handbooks how quickly they will acknowledge your grievance. If they do ensure that they stick to it (unless the person you have sent it to is on holiday or off sick, it maybe a case of then sending it to someone else within the department or their manager), if it means sending another letter to chase up their acknowledgement of your grievance do it and keep a copy of your letter for your evidence file.

Contained within the letter of acknowledgement should be an outline of the grievance procedure plus a date and time of a meeting (investigatory) to hear your complaint. If your workplace has a recognised union, the letter should inform you that you are entitled to representation or an employee representative and you will be asked to arrange their attendance. At all times both parties should keep this information confidential.

When you attend the meeting it’s important to have a clear idea of what you want to say. Its important that you try to remain calm and focused. It is very hard not to become emotional because you have probably endured weeks / months/ years (in some cases) of poor treatment at the hands of one or more individuals. Only refer to things that you know as fact and not hearsay however you can suggest that they speak to other individuals who you believe may have also been subjected to the bad behaviour.

Ensure that your evidence file is in order, make a copy to give to whoever is investigating your grievance – never hand over original documents ( that’s why I always advise people to make at least two copies of any documentary evidence). Only give them a copy of your documentary evidence and not your notes for the meeting. If you can, have your evidence linked to your notes so its easy to reference the information and ensure the investigators copy mirrors your own. Don’t expect to be able to read off a crib sheet as you will be interrupted by the investigator, as what appears crystal clear to you, wont to them and you may need to go into more detail to help them understand the issues.

The investigator is not there to judge you or take sides, they are there to listen to your complaint. Don’t expect any warm words of encouragement they should remain impartial. If you feel that they are taking sides tell them calmly. Don’t get angry and don’t get flustered ensure you know what you are going to say and what the evidence backs up, like the back of your hand before this meeting. Ensure that you and your representative are singing from the same hymn sheet and they know the points you want to raise. The employee representative / union representative can also bring up points you may have forgotten in the heat of the moment.

If you feel yourself becoming flustered or you become emotional ask for a five minute break so that you can calm yourself down and refocus yourself. A reasonable investigator will agree to a break and the break and the time the meeting is reconvened should be recorded in the meeting notes.

Under the intense scrutiny of the investigator, who is usually a few pay grades above you, you can find yourself intimidated. A key thing to remember is that they are a human being too, who eats, sleeps and shits just like the rest of us do. They hold no special powers, its just a fancy job role. If you remember that, you can talk with confidence about what has been happening to you.

At the end of the meeting you should be informed that an investigation will be taking place and given a date of when they would like to appraise you of their findings. Ensure you read the notes of the meeting carefully and any mistakes are corrected before signing. If a copy of the notes isn’t offered ask for them, you are entitled to have them. Again do not keep these notes at work, ensure they are placed with the rest of your complaint related paperwork.

Usually companies have written into their grievance procedures how long it will take before you have your next meeting. If however due to the number of people that need to be interviewed or key personnel are out of the business due to holiday / sickness the time can be extended by mutual agreement and this should also be confirmed in writing. You may also be called back to be re-interviewed to gain more information. The same rules apply you are allowed your union/employee representative to be present and notes must be taken etc

The next meeting should be to confirm whether or not your grievance has been upheld. If it hasn’t they should explain clearly the reason why they believe the person(s) have no case to answer. Remember that you have the right to appeal this decision but there is usually a strict time frame in which to do so. If your grievance has been upheld, they then need to discuss with you what they feel the resolution to this situation is. Again if you aren’t happy with the resolution you have the right to appeal the decisions.

Hopefully after all of this your grievance has been resolved and you are happy with the outcome. Each company has its own appeal procedure. If you are unhappy you need to keep appealing until you have exhausted the companies policy or you have reached a satisfactory resolution. Only once you have exhausted the company’s appeal procedure due to being unhappy with it not being upheld or unsatisfactory resolutions, should you consider going to an employment tribunal and that is getting into areas that I am not qualified to talk about.

Tribunals like to see that the complainant has done everything within their power to resolve their complaint with the company. The £1200 fee now introduced to lodge a tribunal is enough to focus the mind to try and get the situation resolved. Once at this stage you need professional advice from a solicitor to help you navigate through the tribunal system or if your union has been supporting you they may provide a solicitor or your home legal protection (home insurance) may do so.

Obviously its not always possible to exhaust the grievance procedure within your company as they may ignore your grievances, in the hope that you will go away. In this situation it’s important that you have all your paperwork in order to prove you did everything you could. Keep raising in writing to them that your original grievance has not been heard in the XX amount of time that you first made them aware of your request to lodge a grievance. Again don’t just send your letter to the person that you sent your grievance letter to but also send copies of your letter to their boss and even their bosses boss if you need to.

The most important thing to remember is that if sexual assault, physical violence, verbal threats, racial hatred etc have been committed by the perpetrator you are entitled to call the police. People have this crazy notion that when they are at work you can’t call the police. Of course you can, your workplace doesn’t exist in a bubble outside the law of the land. No one can prevent you from calling them if a crime has taken place.

Sorry this is such a long post but it is something I am passionate about. People really need to start arming themselves with knowledge and stand up for their employment rights. No one should be working in fear of being discriminated against, abused, harassed or victimised.

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