Handling a bullying, harassment or discrimination complaint at work

How to approach a bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation complaint

As an employer or manager, you should take any complaint of bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation seriously, and look into it as soon as possible.

A complaint or concern might come from:

  • an employee about something they’ve experienced
  • an employee who's witnessed unacceptable behaviour or treatment
  • a trade union or employee representative on behalf of an employee

You should look into the complaint in a way that's fair and sensitive to:

  • the person who made the complaint
  • anyone who witnessed it
  • anyone accused of bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation

Talk to the person who raised the issue

The first thing you should do is talk to the person raising the issue. This can help you understand more about the issue, and what might help resolve it.

They might ask to be accompanied by their trade union representative if they have one. There's no legal right to be accompanied at this stage, but you may decide to allow it.

Check how they might like it handled

You should ask the person who raised the issue what they’d like to happen.

For example, they might prefer:

  • you to keep an eye on the issue
  • advice and support on how to handle it
  • an apology
  • someone to have a quiet word with the person they're complaining about
  • to try mediation
  • to make a formal complaint

You should try to take what they'd prefer into account. But if you feel that what they'd like to happen is not appropriate, you should:

  • talk to the person and explain why you think it needs to be handled differently
  • try to agree on the approach together

For example, if your employee wants it handled informally but it's an extremely serious matter, you might suggest handling it formally instead.

If you cannot agree on the approach together, you'll need to decide the most appropriate way to handle it. If you're in any doubt, you should deal with it formally.

If they want it dealt with formally

If the person who made the complaint decides to make a formal complaint, you should deal with it formally.

Supporting your employee

You should tell the employee who raised the issue about any support that's available, in case they need it.

Depending on what's available at your workplace, this might include:

  • counselling through an employee assistance programme (EAP), for example if they are feeling stressed
  • people who have a specific role in encouraging and supporting fair treatment in your workplace, for example a bullying and harassment ambassador
  • staff support networks
  • trade union or employee representatives who can offer advice
  • specialist external organisations and charities that provide bullying, harassment and discrimination support

Keep an open mind

You should always keep an open mind when dealing with a complaint about unacceptable behaviour or treatment.

What someone thinks is unfair is usually down to their individual experience, so it's important that you:

  • listen to what they say
  • leave any personal feelings you may have to one side
  • look at how it's made them feel, or how it's affected them
  • do not make any assumptions
  • look into the complaint thoroughly and fairly

Be aware of any sensitivities

Keep in mind that it can be hard for an employee to speak up about bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation, especially if:

  • they're upset about what they've experienced or witnessed
  • it's been happening for a long time
  • it's affecting their mental health
  • they're worried they might be treated unfairly if they make a complaint

Treat it confidentially

You should handle the complaint confidentially, including any investigation.

Mental health and wellbeing

It's likely to be stressful and distressing for someone to:

  • experience bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation
  • witness someone else being bullied, harassed, victimised or discriminated against
  • be accused of bullying, harassment, discrimination or victimisation

You should look out for your employees' wellbeing and offer them support while the complaint is being handled and afterwards. This can prevent:

  • mental health issues arising
  • existing mental health issues getting worse

See more advice on supporting mental health at work.

Check your workplace's policy

Check your workplace's policy on handling the complaint, or your company handbook, to see if it says:

  • who should handle this type of complaint
  • what procedure to follow

Your workplace might have different policies for different types of complaints – for example, one for bullying and another for sexual harassment. You should follow the one that's most relevant to the complaint.

If your workplace does not have a policy or handbook, check with a senior manager or someone in HR to check what procedure to follow.

Deciding the next steps

To work out what to do next, you should first consider:

  • if there's anyone else you need to agree the next steps with
  • the complaint or concern
  • how serious the allegations are
  • any evidence you have so far
  • what you'll need to do to look into the complaint, if you need to look into it further
  • your workplace's policy, and the procedure it tells you to follow

You should also consider:

  • how the person who raised the concern would like it handled
  • how similar cases have been handled in the past
  • if the unfair treatment seems to be intentional
  • what might resolve the complaint
  • if you might need to take any other steps, for example if it's possible that a disciplinary procedure might be needed

You will probably need time to consider all these things.

If you can continue to handle it informally

If possible, you should try to resolve the complaint informally.

Find out more about dealing with it informally.

If it needs to be handled formally

In some cases, you will need to look into a complaint formally. For example, if:

  • the employee makes a formal complaint
  • your workplace's policy says it must be dealt with formally
  • the complaint is very serious

Find out more about dealing with it formally.

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