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Sectarian harassment at work - keep the right side of the law

Paul Oakes
In the aftermath of the recent Helen Scott case, Paul Oakes, Advice & Compliance Division, writes on what employers need to do to deal with sectarian harassment in the workplace.

In a recent Fair Employment Tribunal case, a company, Stevenson & Reid Ltd, was found to have discriminated against, harassed and victimised a former employee on the grounds of her religious belief or political opinion. Helen Scott, the employee, was awarded £20,736 compensation.

The case illustrates the serious effects that sectarian harassment can have – not just on the individuals concerned – but also on employers who fail to take it seriously. Every employer would be wise to take steps to overcome and stamp out bullying and harassment and to provide a workplace where employees can work without feeling intimidated or harassed.

To help employers stay on the right side of the law, prevent harassment and develop a good and harmonious working environment, the Commission recommends that employers adopt a 5-step process:
  • STEP 1: Develop an equal opportunities policy, in conjunction with the relevant trade union or staff group. This policy should commit the employer to the development of a good and harmonious working environment, and to taking all reasonable steps to prevent harassment, defined by law as “unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”. To assist employers, the Commission has developed template policies on issues including equal opportunities and anti-harassment. Employers can download them from the ‘Employer’ section of our website and adapt them to suit their own particular circumstances. We have a new template Joint Declaration of Protection for employers, signed up to by employers’ organisations and trade unions. This will help employers widen the focus from community background and sectarianism to publicly declare a commitment to a good and harmonious work environment across all of the equality areas.
  • STEP 2: Communicate the aim and contents of the policy to employees so that they are aware of their responsibilities and rights under that policy. Too often, policies, once developed, are consigned to the drawer and play no active role in promoting a positive workplace culture. They must be seen as a living document, playing a central role in developing a positive workplace culture.
  • STEP 3: Train all employees so that they are clear on the forms that harassment takes in the workplace and explain what types of behaviour are acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace. The training should also convey the employer’s commitment to the equal opportunities policy and its aims.
  • STEP 4: Act fairly and decisively to implement the policy, by challenging unacceptable behaviour in a timely way and engaging constructively with those who claim to be victims of harassment.
  • STEP 5: Monitor and evaluate the ongoing impact of the policy on workplace behaviour and assess whether the policy, communication strategy and training are effective in promoting a good and harmonious working environment.

We offer a wide range of resources and services to help employers create and maintain a working environment where staff understand what behaviour is acceptable – and crucially, what is not. Along with our guidance on how to promote a good and harmonious working environment and details of our employer training sessions on this topic – a new season of training starts in January.

The new Joint Declaration of Protection (word doc), agreed by employers and trade unions, will help with promoting and maintaining a good and harmonious working environment. You can also email with your queries or to arrange a meeting or phone our enquiry line on 028 9089 0888 to speak confidentially to a member of our staff.
Posted on 16 Nov 2017 by Paul Oakes