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Employment Law Procedures and Policies

Dignity at Work Policies in Ireland-Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Bullying

bullying-at-work

Are you being bullied at work?

Or harassed?

Bullying and harassment are the acts of cowards.

But can be appallingly damaging if you are a victim. And if you are an employer in whose workplace this is allowed to happen.

Bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment claims by employees against employers can be incredibly costly affairs.

And if you are an employee and are suffering from being bullied or harassed it can be equally costly for you in terms of your health.

If you are being bullied at work there is a wide range of legal remedies open to you and you don’t have to suffer in silence.

Let’s take a look at the background to bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace in Ireland..

While there is no express statutory legal obligation on employers to have policies covering bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment it is strongly advisable.

Because the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 and the Employment Equality Acts, together with the common law, create indirect obligations which amount to pretty much the same thing.

In fact, there are three statutory codes of practice covering this area. These include

  1. the Health and Safety Authority’s code on bullying, “Code of Practice for Employers and Employees on the Prevention and Resolution of Bullying at Work
  2. the Equality Authority’s “Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment and Harassment at Work” and
  3. the “Code of Practice Detailing Procedures for Addressing Bullying in the Workplace” (“the Industrial Relation Act Code-statutory instrument 17/2012).

The obligations and responsibilities imposed by these codes of practice along with the employers’ common law duties of care and so forth really make it imperative for employers to have policies in place.

Employers who do not have a workplace policy in place dealing with these issues will have a hard time defending claims made against him as it will be difficult to show that he has discharged his statutory obligations.

Remember that an employer can potentially face civil and criminal proceedings for failure to provide a place of work that is free from bullying.

The presence (or absence) of workplace policies is admissible in evidence in any civil or criminal proceedings when such a dispute comes before a Court or tribunal such as the Labour Court, Employment Appeals Tribunal or Rights Commissioner.

Note: from 1st October, 2015 all these claims must be brought to the WRC (Workplace Relations Commission) or to civil court.

Personal injuries cases taken against employers will also be significantly influenced by the presence of policies as will legal proceedings seeking to attribute liability to the employer for the illness of an employee.

Learn more about bullying as a health and safety issue in the workplace here.

Dignity at Work Policy

One of the most efficient ways for employers to attend to the obligations imposed by the three statutory codes of practice above is to have (and implement) a dignity at work policy which would address bullying, harassment, and sexual harassment.

It is important to note that this dignity at work policy needs to be adapted to the particular circumstances of the workplace. For example if there is a safety representative or committee in place he/they will have to be consulted.

It must also be effectively communicated to employees and implemented in the workplace with regular reviews to take cognisance of any changes in legislation or codes of practice. And it must be brought to the attention of those in the workplace who have responsibility for implementing it and appropriate training should be provided.

(You may also be interested in reading Codes of Practice from the Labour Relations Commission.)

Having appropriate procedures and policies in place in your work place can minimize disputes and time wasting for both employees and employers.

They can also protect your business from costly disputes and claims and ensure that you are in compliance with the law as an employer.

We provide workplace policies and procedures for employers in the following areas:

  • sick leave/sick pay
  • leave
  • timekeeping and attendance
  • internet and email use in the workplace
  • grievances
  • disciplinary issues
  • mobile phone
  • bullying and harassment
  • breaks
  • confidentiality
  • data protection
  • use of company vehicles
  • and more.

Stress, Harassment, and Bullying at Work-The Legal Remedies

If you are being bullied at work, or are a victim of workplace stress or harassment, there are a number of legal remedies open to you.

The broad categories of causes of action you can pursue would be

  • breach of contract
  • a personal injuries claim for negligence of the employer;  your employer owes you a duty of care which is not discharged properly if you suffer one of these non physical injuries at work
  • health and safety law and the employer’s duty to provide you with a safe workplace
  • unfair dismissals (constructive dismissal)
  • equality law in respect of harassment.

Breach of contract

Your contract of employment will contain either an express or implied term that the employer will maintain your trust and confidence, that he will take reasonable care for the health and safety of his employees, that he will provide a safe system of work, that he will ensure reasonable codes of conduct in the workplace, that employees will be free in the workplace to work free from bullying and harassment.

However a claim for a personal injury arising from stress, bullying or harassment fit more naturally into the domain of tort law (civil wrong). For that reason it is more likely to be pursued as a personal injury claim.

Personal injury claim

There appears to be a trend in taking non physical injury claims as personal injury claims. However, the Injuries Board will not deal with it if it is a psychiatric/psychological injury and will simple issue an authorisation to pursue the claim through the Courts. It will invariably end up on the High Court.

The employer has a general duty of care towards his employees  under the law of torts (civil wrongs). (Learn more about negligence and torts here).

There may be a case for distinguishing between stress caused in the workplace and perhaps arising from personal circumstances. So, if there are multiple causes of stress damages may be apportioned.

Constructive dismissal

The employee can also bring a case for constructive dismissal/loss of earnings if he/she leaves the employment because of the bullying, stress or harassment; however this should be one of the last options to exercise as the burden of proof in constructive dismissal cases fall on the employee.

In Riehn v Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [2004] 15 ELR the employee resigned due to stress caused by an excessive workload and was awarded €30,000 in loss of earnings.

The venues that you would pursue the various remedies range from the Rights Commissioner service to the Employment Appeals Tribunal to the Labour Court to the Health and Safety Authority to the Civil Courts.

Criminal prosecution

The Health Safety and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 provides for the criminal prosecution of offences.

Section 78 of the Health Safety and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 provides the penalties:

(i) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €3,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or both, or
(ii) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €3,000,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years or both.

Section 80 of the act provides for personal liability for directors and officers of the company.

Disability claim

One of these non physical injuries could be classified as a disability under the Employment Equality Acts. If that is the case a claim to the Equality Tribunal may also be possible.

Terry Gorry & Co. Solicitors provides all the necessary policies for responsible employers.

We also represent employees who suffer personal injuries as a result of workplace stress,  harassment and/or bullying. Learn more about sexual harassment here.