Could HR solve…? Miss Congeniality

A senior FBI agent crosses the line into bullying when he takes a joke too far

The problem

In an attempt to find the perfect member of his team to go undercover at a beauty contest, agent Eric Matthews runs a computer simulation that shows what staff would look like in a bikini. The activity attracts a crowd, who all jeer at the results on screen, which include older women and senior leadership. Could this be classed as bullying and discrimination, and could HR have stopped this from happening with proper training? 

The solution 

On the surface, this seems like banter, but it could be construed as bullying, says Amo Bains, HR advisor at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust. 

“We all deserve to work in an environment where we feel respected and valued, not for what we look like or our age, but for the knowledge and skills we bring to our roles,” he says. Jeering at what senior leadership and older female colleagues would look like in bikinis could potentially be classed as direct discrimination on the grounds of the protected characteristics of age and sex, he points out.

“Although bullying is not defined by law as such, it is often characterised as behaviour that is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting and is often intended to humiliate or injure the recipient,” he explains, adding that allowing the behaviour to continue sends a clear message to employees that bullying will, in fact, be tolerated. 

It is important for senior leadership to buy into this and be fully committed, Bains says: “HR practitioners should start by having a policy and procedure in place that outlines what constitutes bullying and discrimination in the workplace and how it will be dealt with.” These should be communicated to all employees, he adds.