In my professional practice, a lot of my work focuses on dignity at work – through training, investigations, mediation, conflict resolution and providing advice.
The right to dignity in the Irish workplace is underpinned by legal obligations that employers must uphold. The Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 sets out obligations for employers to ensure that workplaces are free from harassment and sexual harassment. While there is no legal definition of bullying in Ireland, under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005, employers are obliged to prevent and address psychosocial hazards such as bullying. These obligations are reinforced in the new 2021 Code of Practice for employers and employees on the prevention and resolution of bullying at work (S.I. No 674/2020).
Based on my experience in this area of HR, the following are my reflections and recommendations for organisations who want to improve dignity at work:
Early intervention: Proactive approaches to conflict resolution and early interventions such as mediation can prevent and resolve dignity at work issues. For example, people management training should include positive conflict resolution, communications and listening skills, and knowledge and understanding of dignity at work and grievance policies.
Policy development: across most of the Irish public sector, dignity at work policies cover harassment, sexual harassment and bullying, but they do not cover discrimination. Discrimination undermine people’s right to dignity at work and it is important that people feel supported when they experience it. In most public sector organisations, discrimination complaints are managed through grievance procedures. Another option is to develop an equality or EDI policy, including a procedure for the management of complaints.
Cultural change: having good HR policies is not enough – to build a culture of dignity and respect, a whole systems approach is needed. This means focusing on cultural components that build/inhibit dignity including leadership, group/team behaviour, values, communications, conflict management, psychological safety, trust and bias. This is not just within the realm of HR – building cultural change requires an organisation development approach, and a shared leadership approach.
Fair procedures: Fair procedures are critical in managing dignity at work complaints. If a person lodges a complaint relating to bullying with the Workplace Relations Commission under the industrial relations legislation, the focus of adjudication is on whether procedures for managing the dispute were fair, not on the substantive issue of bullying. The right to information, reply and representation applies to parties involved in a dignity at work matter, and the 2021 Code of practice enhances fair procedures by setting out a right of appeal. In my experience managers are often unclear as to how to manage informal and formal complaints, and what to do and communicate at different stages of a dignity at work policy.
Role clarity: it is important to communicate clear roles and responsibilities under dignity at work policies – including the role of contact support persons, designated persons, mediators, HR managers and line managers. In small organisations this is important and challenging, where for example fair procedures could be compromised by a HR manager taking on a number of different roles during the management of an issue or a formal complaint.
The challenges of remote and hybrid working have placed a greater onus on HR departments to implement/monitor dignity at work and related policies and to deliver training to help create positive workplace cultures in which there is zero tolerance for bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. From my experience and observations, prevention is better than cure and you can learn more about this in a previous article that I wrote, which you can find here.
Sile O’Donnell, FCIPD
13 January 2022
About our Author:
Síle O’Donnell (FCIPD) is a HR Consultant and Associate Trainer with PAI. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor in HRM, organisational behaviour and organisation development in Trinity College Dublin. Sile has 27 years’ experience in a range of HR roles in the public sector including over ten years at HR Director level. She provides HR consultancy and training to organisations across the public sector. Since 2014, Síle has delivered a wide range of HR and employee relations training programmes on behalf of PAI, including our popular accredited certificate in HR, dignity at work and equality training. She has completed numerous HR investigations for public sector organisations, and she also advises a number of public sector organisations on managing employee relations procedures and investigations. She has successfully represented clients in the WRC in relation to disputes under the industrial relations legislation. Her career profile can be viewed at www.sileodonnell.ie.