What Les Mis teaches employers about managing bullying in the workplace

Is there a wretched Fantine in your office, the victim of workplace bullying? Kate Russell, the HR Headmistress, explains what constitutes bullying, and what to do about it.

by Kate Russell
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I went to see Les Miserables recently. Not a fan of very long films usually, but there were some wonderful performances, especially Anne Hathaway as the wretched Fantine.

The underlying theme of Les Mis is about bullying behaviour. No, no, hear me out. In the film, we saw Jean Valjean relentlessly and viciously targetted by Javert; and Fantine was harassed and turned off by the bullying foreman in the factory where she worked when she rejected his advances, with desperate consequences.

Bullying is a horrible thing. It’s not the same thing as harassment (which sits within the discrimination legislation), but it has similarities.

It can be persistent behaviour over a period of time, or a one-off act and can include physical contact which is unwanted, unwelcome remarks, jokes, offensive language, gossip, slander, posters, graffiti, obscene gestures, flags, bunting and emblems, isolation or non-cooperation and exclusion from social activities, intrusion by pestering, spying and stalking, failure to safeguard confidential information, shouting at staff, setting impossible deadlines, persistent criticism, personal insults. Unchecked in the workplace, it can lead to a variety of claims.

Tackling workplace bullying is a responsibility of all employers and employees. Organisations should have a robust policy that clearly sets out their commitment to promoting courteous and appropriate workplace language and behaviour. It must be clearly communicated to employees and the consequences of breach articulated.

Employees should adhere to the policy and report breaches of it. The policy should be monitored and regularly reviewed for effectiveness, including: records of complaints, why and how they occurred, who was involved and where.

All employees should be able to raise concerns about bullying. Some complaints may be resolved informally. In some minor cases it may be sufficient for the recipient of bullying to raise the problem with the perpetrator, pointing out the unacceptable behaviour. But if this isn’t possible, there should be procedures in place to enable support from a colleague, an appropriate manager or an HR representative.

Formal disciplinary procedures are needed if the bullying is serious, even if the employee doesn’t want to make a formal complaint. As always, any sanction should be proportionate and take into account any mitigating circumstances.
Kate Russell is the MD of Russell HR Consulting

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