How retailers can tackle discrimination, bullying and harassment

Allegations of bullying and harassment are common across many industries and the retail sector is not immune.

Recently Lord Peter Hain, a Labour peer, used parliamentary privilege to accuse Philip Green of bullying. Lord Hain said he chose to speak up after hearing “horrible” claims of sexual assault resulting in hundreds of grievance cases against the retail boss.

Besides the effect on the victims themselves, discrimination, harassment and sexual harassment affect the mental and physical wellbeing of all employees and create a dysfunctional team environment.

As a result, employee morale, engagement and performance suffer. Alongside the impact on performance, there are legal, reputational and financial risks related to allegations and grievances. The retail sector employs millions of people across the UK – it must take these issues seriously.

What constitutes discrimination, harassment and bullying?

Harassment and bullying can be simply defined as behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended while discrimination is less favourable treatment of another person or persons.

In legal terms, harassment is “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”.

The nine protected characteristics are disability, race, sex, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, religion or belief, and age. Notably, it is the impact that is important, so conduct might be considered harassment even if this is not intended.

What can businesses do?

1) Educate all staff on the issues

The first step in preventing harassment, bullying and discrimination is to ensure that everyone at all levels within a business understands these definitions.

There should be a clear delineation between robust management, which can be carried out with civility, and bullying.

Inappropriate and disrespectful conduct should be defined as part of the organisation’s HR policy. Examples might include offensive jokes, slurs, physical assaults or threats, intimidation and interference with work.

Business leaders should set in place a code of behaviour that fosters care and respect between all staff. Crucially they must also set the tone from the top with their own exemplary conduct.

2) Facilitate defence

All businesses should have robust policies and procedures which enable staff to speak out and defend themselves and others from inappropriate behaviour.

The policies should clearly set out the informal and formal steps employees can take to raise concerns as early as possible, before the situation escalates. An open door policy that makes managers available and approachable so staff can talk to them when needed is the most basic requirement.

If the issues cannot be dealt with informally, more formal steps must be taken to monitor and tackle the issue. This could involve keeping a written record of all actions and reporting the issue to a more senior figure or the HR team who can then take appropriate action to clamp down on the behaviour.

The complaint should be properly investigated and all parties consulted in a sensitive and confidential manner with appropriate support offered to the alleged victim.

Sometimes dealing with workplace tensions might involve educating ‘bullies’ who are unaware of the damaging impact of their behaviour. However, managers must be prepared to take more stringent disciplinary action when necessary.

3) Foster positive company values

To ensure a truly happy and engaged workforce, bosses must instil a culture of respect and positive shared values. This is something that is set from the top down so those in charge must act as role models.

Many of today’s most successful organisations are those that promote strong ethical values and pride themselves in being great places to work, with a very loyal and engaged workforce.

Staff who feel valued and are treated with respect are far more likely to behave well towards those around them.

Boosting the wellbeing of staff will benefit their health and leave them feeling more energised, enthusiastic and motivated which is likely to have a knock-on effect on their performance at work. In a happy workplace, everyone is a winner.

Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions

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