Let’s set the scenario: A member of staff comes to you to complain that they are being bullied by a fellow employee and that they are considering leaving the business as a result of this behaviour. What do you do?
Firstly, there are two issues that you should be concerned about in this situation that are linked but should be dealt with separately;
1. Properly investigating the bullying allegation
2. Ensuring that if the staff member leaves that you don’t face an action for constructive dismissal.
Unless you have experience in these matters and are happy that you will be able to deal with the investigation, you should consider getting advice from a HR consultant before embarking on taking any action. However, if you do decide to proceed on your own here is a seven step outline of the process you should go through:
- Refer to your policy on bullying that you should have in your handbook or safety statement and should have been given to every staff member. If you don’t have a policy you are already in a difficult situation as you will have to investigate the allegations without a written policy or procedure in place that could result in problems if you do find yourself defending a claim for constructive dismissal.
- Sit down with the staff member who is making the allegations and take a full and detailed statement from her under the following headings:
· Full details of the particular incidents she is complaining about and
· Whether there are any witnesses to the alleged incidents.
Difficult as it may be you should resist drawing any conclusions or committing yourself to any particular course of action before you have had a chance to talk to all those concerned.
- Depending on the seriousness of the bullying allegations and the state of mind of the staff member making the allegations you might also want to consider if it is appropriate to offer her time off, on full pay, whilst you are carrying out your investigation. You should then, if practical, put the allegations into some form of a statement for the employee to consider and sign. You should also assure her that she should remain on as an employee until the investigation is completed and a decision is made as to what action to take, if any.
- Following this, talk to the person who has been accused of the bullying behaviour. This is clearly going to be an awkward situation and it is not uncommon for the person to express disbelief and shock at the allegations. Again it is important that you give as much information on the allegations so that the person has time to consider them and respond accordingly. You should also make it clear that you are merely conducting an investigation into the allegations and that this is not a disciplinary process. Again, if possible you should get the staff member to prepare some form of statement in response to the allegations. As with giving the alleged victim an option of time off, you may also have to consider a suspension on full pay of the person accused of the bullying if you feel the situation is serious enough for that course of action.
- You should also take statements from any other members of staff or otherwise that either of the employees offer as witnesses.
- Once you have completed the process of taking the statements you will then have to consider if there are grounds to take the next step which is a disciplinary investigation. The difference with this investigation is that you are taking an action on a staff member under your disciplinary procedure. Again, if you don’t have a written procedure in place you have to make sure that you carry out the investigation fairly and give all parties as much information as possible as to what is being alleged and an opportunity to answer any claim made against them.
- Once the disciplinary investigation is completed, depending on the outcome of the investigation, you will then have to take the appropriate action against the staff member. For example, if the allegations are found to be true and to be at the higher end of the scale you may have to consider a dismissal or a suspension. For lesser offences you could issue a written or verbal warning on the clear understanding that if there is a re-occurrence that the possibility of dismissal is high. This process will be a lot easier if you have in place a proper written procedure on how a disciplinary process will work, irrespective of the type of conduct by the staff member that requires action by the employer.
Following on from this if an employer can show that a fair process was followed then it would be more difficult for a disgruntled employee to resign from her job and then bring an action for constructive dismissal. A lot of constructive dismissal claims, where an employee resigns but claims that they were left with no option, are grounded on the allegation that the investigative and/or the disciplinary procedures followed by the employer were flawed and did not follow the employers own policies or if there were no policies did not follow the rules of fairness and natural justice.
Given the relative size of a lot of small businesses the reality is that investigations into these types of allegations are difficult, particularly as both the accuser and the accused often work in close proximity to one another. The employer can also find it difficult because they don’t want to have to take sides or be seen to make the wrong decision. If you feel that you are unable to be objective you should consider getting another senior person unconnected with the situation to carry out the investigation or alternatively get someone from outside the business to do it who has some experience in these matters. That way you will certainly be able to show that you took the allegations seriously and had a full and thorough investigation into the allegations.
The contents of this article are necessarily expressed in broad terms and limited to general information rather than detailed analyses or legal advice. Specialist professional advice should always be obtained to address legal and other issues arising in specific contexts.