The open letter published by former employees of BrewDog highlights some very important employment law issues.
For someone who is or has been experiencing bullying and harassment at work then lockdown and remote working is likely to have provided a welcome chance for space and distance from their harasser.
However, previous research and studies have shown that workplace bullying and harassment hasn’t stopped during lockdown, it has merely moved online and all employers need to be conscious of this.
At the moment, there is a danger with remote working that the boundaries between work and home are becoming blurred. Many employees are currently working full time from their kitchen table and are without a designated workspace, but may be expected to start returning to work in the near future. Some are likely to be dreading a physical return to the office and being in close proximity to their harasser - this could be a widespread issue.
Employers should be wary of pressing employees who may seem wary of returning to work to return if there is any suggestion that they feel apprehensive or unenthused about a physical return to the office. On the other hand, employees who have experienced domestic issues, or even perhaps domestic violence at home during lockdown are likely to welcome a return to the office.
Against this backdrop, employers should be doing all they can to make clear what is and is not acceptable behaviour at work to prevent and stop bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation, and be ready to take action wherever and whenever they find it.
Having robust policies which are kept under review, and undertaking regular staff training should be helpful in clearly and widely communicating what is and is not acceptable at work, and ultimately should avoid costly legal action.
Many employers will have a staff handbook which sets out what their policies are in relation to the types of behaviour which are expected at work, as well as those that are unacceptable, it should also set out what happens when problems arise and complaints are made. A staff handbook is likely to have a grievance policy which deals with staff complaints, as well as a whistleblowing procedure, and sets out details of these processes.
If an employee raises any complaint then an employer should take it seriously. It is important for employers to have a speak up culture where staff are not afraid or prevented from coming forward and raising issues. It should be recognised that employees are not likely to want to bring complaints against their employer and it is likely that they will feel afraid in doing so. Employers should consider at an early stage what help and support they can offer to the employee and think about offering them counselling, this could be particularly helpful where an assault or sexual harassment is alleged.
The first step in dealing with harassment or any other type of workplace complaint is likely to involve talking to the victim, trying to fully understand the nature of the issue and how they would like it to be dealt with. This can be particularly important in dealing with workplace harassment, which can be a very sensitive issue, especially if there are allegations of sexual misconduct which can be difficult and hard for victims to talk about. Having an informal discussion in the first instance can sometimes, but not always, alleviate the need for a formal grievance procedure.
Before starting any investigation, the employer should make sure that they properly understand the complaint and how the employee would like it to be handled - this can be especially important where allegations have been made of harassment, and where the alleged perpetrator is in a position of power. It is often the case that the more powerful the person is within an organisation, the more reluctant the employee will be to challenge their behaviour.
Depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary for the alleged perpetrator to be suspended from work while any investigation is carried out. Investigating any workplace complaint is likely to involve interviewing all the relevant witnesses to the complaint, and taking statements from them.
Getting the handling of workplace complaints wrong can be costly for the employer. There can be considerable costs in defending an employment tribunal claim both in legal costs and the management time lost, even if ultimately a low amount of compensation is awarded.
If workplace problems are not dealt with appropriately, it can lead to widespread culture issues, and widespread fear that issues can’t be raised and so can’t be dealt with – this is a dangerous cycle which can result in employees being ultimately forced out of their employment, while the underlying issues remain unaddressed and undealt with.
Culture problems can cause huge harm to a business and its brand, as well as damage to working relationships and relationships with investors and clients. In some cases it can even be a regulatory issue. This is a case where prevention is better than cure. The treatment process is slow, and the cure is not always successful.
BrewDog, the fast-expanding craft beer firm, has apologised to former employees who accused the company and its co-founder James Watt of fostering a “culture of fear” in which workers were bullied and “treated like objects”.