Weekly dilemma: Poking fun at ‘Ugly Betties’

A new starter at our company has faced sniggers and negative remarks from other staff members because of her unfashionable dress sense and ‘geeky’ persona. I’m worried about an emerging culture of bullying towards her. What can I do?

Channel 4’s comedy Ugly Betty has done a good job highlighting the difficulties that new employees can face in settling into a new environment. The show follows the daily life of Betty Suarez, a young woman who has started a new job. Most of her female co-workers are more attractive than she is and they often humiliate and insult her because of her appearance.

Getting teased because of the way you look is the most common form of bullying, from the playground to the workplace. Employers must maintain certain standards if they are to foster a happy working environment.

Allowing consistent put-downs and personal remarks from colleagues about other people’s appearance is morally unacceptable and, for an employee with sufficient service, may provide the basis for a claim of constructive unfair dismissal.

However, for new employees, the scope for legal protection is limited as it is not at present possible to make a direct complaint to an employment tribunal about bullying in itself. Staff might be able to bring complaints under rules outlawing harassment contained within the anti-discrimination legislation. For example, legislation covering sex, age, race, religion, disability, sexuality or age all contain provisions of this type.

Alternatively, the provisions of the Protection from Harassment Act (originally intended to provide protection from stalkers and the like) have been interpreted as holding employers responsible for bullying and harassment in the workplace. Such claims are pursued in the county courts.

Employers should make it clear to new recruits during the induction process that bullying is not tolerated in the workplace, and they should have procedures in place to investigate and deal with allegations of bullying.

Mark Higgins, head of employment, Betesh Fox

Comments are closed.