'Intimidatory' | As bullying & harassment claims rock Deloitte, should HR be protecting staff better?

As bullying & harassment claims rock Deloitte, should HR be protecting staff better?

Deloitte has denied failing to protect a former female employee from being bullied after her relationship with a male partner ended.

As reported by the Financial Times, the firm has refuted claims that it “failed” to stop the Deloitte partner Chris Holliday from harassing former risk analyst Katrina Jones, after she launched legal action against the company’s London office in late 2021.

Jones accused Holliday of “oppressive, manipulative, and abusive” behaviour after a romantic relationship between the pair ended, which led to her suffering mental health issues, according to High Court documents.

Jones claims Holliday's behaviour, which included comments that he could have her sacked, was “inextricably linked to [his] seniority and authority” over her.

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She also claimed that Holliday began acting in an “intimidatory” manner when she ended their relationship in 2017.

In a defence submitted to the High Court, Deloitte has now denied liability over the allegations of bullying or harassment, claiming the “majority of the conduct complained of took place away from work and in the context of a personal relationship between autonomous adults.”

Deloitte refused to comment on the matter further. Despite a legal case ongoing, the allegations have raised key issues about bullying and harassment in the workplace, and how HR should handle them.

Bullying & harassment at work

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is more commonplace than we would like it to be. A survey conducted by SME Loans in 2020 found that almost a quarter (23%) of the British workforce have been bullied at work. It found that the bullying was consistent across age group and gender.

The Government’s website states that “bullying is not against the law, but harassment is.” Employees may have a case to bring if the harassment is related to age, sex, gender and gender reassignment, among other protected characteristics. The Government advises speaking to a manager, HR official or trade union official for advice on resolving the problem before escalating it to a formal complaint and perhaps an employment tribunal. They can also call the ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) helpline for advice on 0300 123 1100.

However, some have criticised the Government for their approach to tackling bullying at work, arguing that it does not go nearly far enough. Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has called for a watchdog with “real teeth” to ensure bosses treat their workers properly, as well as to offer better protections for people working in low-paid sectors who fear they are being exploited at work. CAS claims to have seen evidence of “staggering cases of workers being mistreated” during the pandemic, including bullying.

In a statement, CAS Social Justice Spokesperson David Scott said: “The pandemic has created huge challenges for employers across all industries – but there’s no excuse to break the law and not recognise the rights working people have.

“Better promotion and awareness of rights at work would make a difference, as would the UK Government bringing forward an employment rights watchdog with real teeth to tackle bad bosses.”

What employees can do

If you do find yourself experiencing bullying at work, experts recommend you do the following:

  • Speak up early on. It may be difficult to confront a bully, but there's the possibility that being called out will stop them in their tracks.

  • Get to know your company's policy around workplace harassment.

  • Document the abuse. Keep records of what they say and do, with times and dates.

  • Speak to your supervisor and/or HR manager. They should help you tackle the situation.

  • Practice self-care. Find someone to talk to informally about what's going on.

  • Make an official complaint.

What HR can do

The majority of employers are aware of the protections afforded to employees under the Equality Act relating to issues of discrimination and harassment, and do have up-to-date and comprehensive policies on equality, diversity and inclusion.

However, employers should keep an eye on their workplace culture generally to make sure it is professional and appropriate, as well as inclusive. Up-to-date training on communicating in a modern-day workplace should also be provided to employees regularly to ensure all workers know what is and what is not appropriate workplace behaviour.

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