Nick Collins: Staff must be protected from harassment

Weightmans partner Nick Collins. Picture: Contributed
Weightmans partner Nick Collins. Picture: Contributed
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To anyone reading the newspapers of late, it is clear that people holding – or aspiring to hold – a role that puts them in the public eye requires broad shoulders and must develop a thick skin.

They must endure a level of criticism, often unfairly so and of a personal nature.

Whilst those individuals may justifiably be considered “fair game”, what about those who may work for public or national bodies, or companies, but at a level that could never be described as positions in the glare of the public eye?

In these days of the internet. Facebook, blogs and other social media, it is not uncommon for individuals working for such organisations to be subjected to a level of abuse that can never be considered as reasonable or that “goes with the territory” of the job.

In most jobs where there is a level of interaction with members of the public, a degree of criticism (sometimes unattractive and even unreasonable) can be anticipated and has to be accepted. However, some individuals will inevitably feel they have been treated unfairly and will wish to vent their frustration and dissatisfaction. It has to be accepted that, with the rise of the social channels, these complaints or campaigns are able to reach a much wider audience than was ever previously the case and postings can be permanently accessible.

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Whilst a level of criticism has to be accepted alongside a position of responsibility, what happens when the individual or group complaining goes too far? What happens when their postings turn into a campaign against an individual or individuals that is particularly unpleasant, personal or vitriolic?

When this occurs, the first question an employer must ask is can they afford to do nothing? Requiring individual members of staff to respond to the numerous complaints these campaigns can generate can be a considerable administrative and financial burden.

Of even greater concern, it can have an enormously demoralising effect upon those who are being subjected to the abuse. Were their concerns to be ignored by the employer and should the recipient of the abuse be signed off work (perhaps long term, or even permanently) with a stress-related illness, it is not inconceivable that this could give rise to a successful action against the employer.

In such circumstance, there are steps the employer can (and arguably, must) take to bring such campaigns to an end. It is most likely that action will be brought relying upon the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which provides that a person must not pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another and which they know or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.

Whilst the act does make it possible to pursue criminal proceedings, it is more likely that a civil action will be pursued. For such action to be under consideration, it is highly likely that the campaign has been ongoing for some time. It must be conduct that goes beyond unattractive and unreasonable and is conduct which is oppressive and unacceptable.

The purpose of the proceedings is to bring the harassment to an immediate conclusion.

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Assuming the campaign of harassment is ongoing and shows no sign of abating (typically those waging such campaigns have developed an unhealthy obsession and are highly unlikely to listen to polite requests to bring it to a conclusion) then upon issue of proceedings, application should be made for an interim injunction that, if granted, will order the person or persons to cease harassment with immediate effect pending a final court order. If an interim injunction is granted, it is a contempt of court to breach it. Contempt of court can be punished by a fine, imprisonment or both.

Once an interim cessation of the harassment has been achieved, the possibility of achieving a satisfactory settlement, and avoiding court, becomes very much more likely.

Usually in these cases, the person being subjected to the harassment just wants to “get their life back”, and it is incumbent on the employer to help them do so if the cause of the issue is work related.

When social media began, we all thought that it would broaden our horizons, and make the world a bigger place – however, in many cases it has made the world much smaller, allowing personal and business interactions to be open to the direct scrutiny of others. It is beholden on employers to recognise this, and the fact that their employees are working in a different landscape – one which can make valued employees very vulnerable.

• Nick Collins is a partner specialising in litigation and dispute resolution at Weightmans LLP