Harassment in the workplace – what can employees do?

In the light of an alarming number of work-related suicides in France, Binder Bansel, our head of employment law, considers the steps open to an employee if harassed and put under intolerable pressure by an employer in the UK…  

Between 2008 and 2010, France Télécom (the French equivalent of BT) experienced a shocking number of suicides amongst its employees – some even in their own offices. With some also leaving notes blaming ‘pressure of work’.

Last month a formal judicial investigation into the situation began. It will decide whether a radical restructuring of the company – instigated under the then Chief Executive, Didier Lombard – constituted harassment for which he should be held legally responsible.

France Télécom employs over 100,000 people. The restructure was designed to cut 22,000 jobs, and move 10,000 others to new roles. France Télécom staff and their unions complained that, as a result, they were forced into jobs they couldn’t cope with and endured a ‘culture of fear’. They believe that the pressure and stress created by the restructure was so intolerable that it was the direct cause of 35 to 45 colleagues ending their lives.

If Mr Lombard is formally charged, it will be the first legal case of its kind in France. Sadly, though, it’s not the first instance of staff suicides in French companies.

Fortunately we’ve not seen anything similar in the United Kingdom, despite the dreadful impact of the recession on British business, jobs and workers.  And we certainly hope that our legal system would never have to deal with a case like the investigation into Mr Lombard. But what can employees do if they believe that their employer is harassing them?

If the misconduct is sufficiently serious, they can always report it to the police. Where it’s discriminatory (on the grounds of race, sex, disability, age, sexual orientation or belief), they can bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal. Anthea Christie recently wrote in this blog about a successful claim where an employer was found liable for a male employee’s sexual harassment of a female colleague.

Apart from that, under current English and Welsh law, it’s possible for employees to bring a civil claim against their employer under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. Originally intended to deal with stalkers, its wording is general enough for employees to have used it to claim against employers for alleged bullying and harassment.

For a claim like this to succeed, the employer must be shown to have pursued a ‘course of conduct’ which amounted to harassment of the employee, and to have been aware that it did. To be a ‘course of conduct’ towards an individual employer, there must have been at least two incidents of such behaviour.

The question of what amounts to harassment depends on the exact circumstances of the case. To date, cases suggest that it’s likely to require behaviour which might also amount to a criminal offence.

Examples are Conn v Sunderland City Council, where a foreman threatened to hit an employee and to break a window of the room the employee was in. Also Iqbal v Dean Manson Solicitors, where a solicitor brought a claim against his former employer for writing letters which made unpleasant and serious allegations questioning his professional and personal conduct.

This is likely to be a high hurdle in most conventional employment situations and, consequently, claims like this claims aren’t easy to win. However, employees who suffer really unpleasant treatment at the hands of their employers might want to consider whether it could constitute harassment under that law.

Binder Bansel, Current Controversies, Employment, Marcus Weatherby,
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