Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Anti Bullying Week in Focus : How HR Professionals, Managers and Employees Can Help Tackle LGBTQIA Bullying At Work

Imagine this scenario. You're a trans woman who has just completed her Gender Reassignment Surgery recovery and has decided to go back to work as a Purchase Ledger Clerk at a local Accountancy firm (a SME with 40 employees). You get on fine with your fellow clerks and the Payroll Administrators but there is a male Accountant who works part time for the organisation who has started staring at you uncontrollably whenever you enter the central office. After a week of staring, the accountant in question starts making unflattering comments to you about your appearance. He calls you "big man hands", "fake boobs", "mentally retarded", "silly Fanny" in front of a Junior Accountant who says nothing about the rhetoric. This goes on for about 6 months without the Accountant relenting. You go to your HR Manager several times but each time they say there isn't enough evidence to prove that the Accountant is doing anything wrong; the manager fobs you off each time by saying that they will remind him to stop saying "hurtful comments" just in case he's doing it.

One afternoon you are alone in the office with the Accountant in question showing him some records that you need to correct on behalf of a client and the Accountant tells you sharply that it was your fault you got the records wrong and that you should "kill yourself" and save him from having to fire you because you are transgender. He then lunges at you, punches and kicks you until the Junior Accountant comes back into the office and calls the Police. Only once the police conducts a thorough investigation do all the incidents of bullying and harassment come to light. The trans employee is so shaken up by her experiences that she leaves the profession and doesn't go back into work for 2 years.

In my opinion it shouldn't take someone knocking seven bells out of a LGBTQIA employee at work for an organisation to take note of bullying and harassment that occurs as a result of being open about their gender identity or sexual orientation. It shouldn't take a police investigation or the opening of an Employment Tribunal case to get employers and HR departments to realise that bullying must be taken seriously and grievance procedures created and followed to protect LGBTQIA employees from harm and to punish bullies for the way they have decided to conduct themselves whilst at work.
The HR Professional at the Accountancy firm should have at least had a robust Equality and Diversity policy and Anti-Bullying policy in place and followed set procedures in the Grievance/Disciplinary policy so that they could have protected the trans employee from having to be in contact with the Accountant in the first place, especially seeing that the bullying had been sustained over 6 months or so. They should have also made all employees aware that transphobic bullying is against the Equality Act (because trans people are covered by the Gender Reassignment protected characteristic) and that any employee found to be bullying a fellow LGBTQIA employee would face disciplinary action, regardless of rank/seniority in the business. The HR Professional should have referred the trans employee to organisations to help them deal with the effects of the sustained bullying and also addressed their own awareness gap to ensure it didn't happen again, perhaps referring themselves to the ACAS website or sign up to Stonewall training or attend a local CIPD workshop to do this. There literally are no excuses to remain ignorant of LGBTQIA workplace bullying.

Many excuses of course are made in the workplace for harsh behaviour; whether it be -"it's just a management style" and employees have "to deal with it" or look for another job, to a manager shouting and swearing at staff in a call centre being seen as "a bit of banter" when it includes transphobic or homophobic slurs. The organisation's HR department or SME HR person must do all they can to change the mindsets of those who LGBTQIA bullying in the workplace isn't worth addressing or isn't widespread enough to need to be addressed. The guidance below is designed to help lay out basic steps that can be taken by HR Professionals, Managers and Employees to address LGBTQIA bullying head on. I hope you find some of them useful and implementable, whether you are an organisation in the UK, US or beyond.

What can Employers do to tackle LGBTQIA Bullying at Work?
  • Foster a culture that is free from bullying. "Tone at the Top" leadership is incredibly important in this respect. How a CEO/CFO treats a LGBTQIA member of staff will impact on the way others in the organisation treat them. How the CEO/HR department manager also deal with those who bully LGBTQIA matters greatly. HR managers must make it clear that bullying behaviour is a type of gross misconduct and that those found guilty after a thorough and robust disciplinary process will be dismissed.
  • The Equality and Diversity/Bullying policies must not be merely seen as part of a "tick box exercise" scheme to placate LGBTQIA staff. They must lead to the employers and employees wanting to build a team that values everyone regardless of their gender identity or sexuality.
  • Bullying and harassment may be verbal, non-verbal, written or physical. Examples of all these types of bullying must be laid out in the Bullying policy and referred to in the Equality and Diversity policy. This makes all staff aware of their own behaviours and then take responsibility for themselves so they do not risk losing their own jobs.
  • "Deeds, not Words" matter. HR staff must be prepared to train management so they understand what constitutes LGBTQIA bullying and harassment and that their actions could constitute an offence against the Equality Act 2010. Managers need to be given a space where they can reflect on their style and what adjustments they need to make to prevent unnecessary offence being caused and also to spot the signs of workplace bullying:
    • Being constantly criticised or having duties/responsibilities taken away without a reasonable explanation being given for this (need to communicate sympathetically with member of staff involved in a appraisal meeting to explain why duties are being reduced/changed).
    • Managers/Team Leaders using their position of power to make a LGBTQIA employee feel uncomfortable/unsafe at work -e.g., making threats about job security without any objective evidence being provided by the HR team.
    • Shouting/aggressive threats.
    • Being made to feel like the butt of all office jokes on a daily/weekly basis (this is NOT banter!)
    • Being constantly ignored, victimised and excluded on a daily/weekly basis.
    • Spreading malicious rumours about a LGBTQIA member of staff-e.g. a trans female employee "perving" on fellow female employees in the bathroom.
    • Blocking progress/promotion within the organisation on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • HR staff  and managers should encourage employees to notify the perpetrator that their behaviour is unacceptable in the first instance (by words or by conduct) but it must be understood that this might not be possible (especially in cases of rape/sexual assault, grievous bodily harm (GBH) or able bodily harm (ABH).
  • HR staff and managers must make it clear to the LGBTQIA employee affected by bullying and/or harassment that all allegations of bullying and harassment will be taken seriously, confidentially.
  • HR staff and managers must communicate the disciplinary/grievance procedures to employees, including who the employee needs to speak to (their designated point of contact) and what will happen once the incident (s) have been reported.
  • HR staff could create an Anti-Bullying support forum to highlight incidents that occur across the organisation. HR staff can moderate the forum and share tips and advice on how to tackle bullying and harassment and encourage victims to speak out and approach the HR department to start the formal grievance procedure.
  • HR staff should monitor LGBTQIA staff absence sensitively; if an employee is taking several days off at a time, ask yourself why this might be the case. Approach the employee with care and be prepared to listen if they start talking to you about incidents that have occurred at work. Note such incidents down in the employees file and promise to investigate them as a matter of urgency. If the employee has already filed a grievance complaint and they need to take time off because they are "run down" or stressed, tell them that you are understanding of their situation and remind them to forward a doctor's note to the HR department. Keep the employee informed of the status of the grievance procedure via letter or email and remain a Point of Contact for the employee after the results of the grievance procedure are given, making sure you resist the urge to judge them if the results go against the employee concerned.
  • HR staff should keep all documents relating to the LGBTQIA employee's grievance procedure, just in case the employee decides to leave the organisation and/or take the organisation to an Employment Tribunal. This will show that the organisation is willing to be transparent and co-operative during the hearing and the judge may be more likely to rule in favour of the organisation. However, be prepared to learn lessons from the case if the judge rules in favour of the ex-employee so that the HR department and organisation can prevent similar mismanagement happening again.
What can Employees do to tackle LGBTQIA Bullying at Work?
  • Commit to the zero-tolerance Bullying policy.
  • Be prepared to be honest about their own conduct in the office and make changes quickly after reading the policy- e.g., don't join in with calling a gay colleague a "bender" or "poof".
  • Be prepared to report transgressions by others and support those LGBTQIA colleagues who are being bullied rather than "hiding behind a wall of silence" and pretend that the bullying and/or harassment is going on.
  • Join the Bullying forum and share tips and advice about any experiences of bullying you may have been through to try and encourage others to speak out against their bullies.
What to do if you are bullied at work:
  • If you are being bullied, remember that you can take control of the situation:
    • If the incident has only occurred once, and involves verbal/written bullying, approach the person concerned and say -"I am sure you are not aware but when you called me "poof" or said that I was a "pervert", I feel bullied. If you do not stop saying this, I will have to use the formal grievance procedure".
    • If there has been multiple incidents and the perpetrator has not stopped:
      • Confide in someone you trust - e.g. fellow colleague/parent/partner.
      • Keep a diary/ list which logs each and every incident of bullying and/or harassment and each time you feel belittled or afraid. Note down the names of everyone who witnessed or participated in the incident. The writing of a diary is cathartic in itself and empowers you as an employee because it should show you that you are not the cause of the bullying- the perpetrator is.
      • Go to your team leader/manager with the diary and tell them you want to start the grievance procedure against the perpetrator. If the team leader won't intervene, go to the departmental manager. If the manager won't do anything, email/phone the HR department to arrange a meeting.
      • Remember that it is OK to email/approach your manager/HR manager to find out the status of your grievance procedure. Keep strong and remember you have done nothing wrong.
      • Remember that it is OK for you to take time off from work if you have been suffering from stress or feeling depressed as a result of long term bullying. Don't be afraid to seek help for your stress by talking to your GP and they can see if you can access NHS Talking Therapies/ Counselling if/when appropriate.
      • If you feel your organisation isn't taking your formal grievance case seriously enough or have refused to investigate, and you are a member of a union, contact your union representative straight away. If you're not a member of a union, you can always contact ACAS or look on their website as they can offer help and advice.
      • If your organisation rules against you, you can take them to an employment tribunal. You can contact ACAS to get advice on this or get in touch with the Tribunals helpline on 0845 795 9775.  
      • It's OK to dip your toe in the water and search for other job opportunities within the local area. You're not giving up, you're just exploring all options available to you, especially if the grievance procedure has been handled badly by management or the HR department.