Only around half of UK staff surveyed by law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp in 2021 believed their employer would take worries about bullying, discrimination or harassment seriously.
People don’t know what to do. In the same study, 59% weren’t even comfortable with talking to a professional law firm; the same proportion that it was just too expensive.
Meanwhile, YouGov research in 2021 showed that, across the UK, 23% of employees had experienced some kind of discrimination (up to 30% in London). Among people from minority ethnic backgrounds the figure rose to 49%); among LGBT+ 47%; and those people with a disability (33%).
So what’s happened as a result of all the new initiatives and awareness campaigns brought in by HR? New attention to the potential for bullying and other kinds of inappropriate workplace behaviours in recent years doesn’t appear to have made any substantial difference to outcomes.
Still there’s a binary response among employees. It’s either, ‘I’m going to have to put up with the situation’; or — ‘that’s it, I’m going to a tribunal’.
The problem, obviously, continues to be that people don’t trust the attitude of line managers and HR to their concerns. Will they be seen as making a fuss over nothing; as a trouble-maker; as weak? On the surface managers are following the new support processes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t cynicism underneath, even implications when it comes to future treatment.
Workplace cultures still value the ‘strength’ of people who focus solely on tasks and responsibilities, who leave personal concerns behind as soon as they start work. At the same time, our new working world encourages both sensitivity to anything ‘inappropriate’ and personal resilience. And this leads to mixed feelings around speaking up. Being ‘strong’ means ignoring problems or turning to hard, legally-bound processes.
HR need to find ways to break the binary situation. That means more than encouraging awareness of the issues around bullying, discrimination and harassment. Attention needs to be given to what really happens next, and the ripples of implications from cases that aren’t seen to be handled that well.
Having a culture of mediation is important. One where mediation or neutral assessment is used as the norm for dealing with worries at an early stage, not when things turn serious. Most of all, workplaces need what we call ‘Conversational Integrity’, where there’s a culture of ‘good’ conversations. When people at all levels know they can have a grown-up conversation — there’s evidence of skills in listening, empathy, self-awareness — then there’s a positive cycle of building trust. There’s no need to think in terms of either hiding grievances or weighing up the benefits of legal action.