SME bosses risk legal action over ‘office antics’

SME bosses could be leaving themselves open to legal action by being unaware of the level of sexism, swearing and shouting in the workplace, according to a new study* by specialist business insurer Hiscox.

At the same time, the study found seven in ten (70%) UK workers claim that bad behaviour is rife in their place of work – admitting that the regular occurrence of racist jokes, arguments and bullying could offend colleagues.

The study separately questioned UK SME bosses and UK workers about behaviour in the workplace. Comparing the responses revealed a considerable gap in attitudes between bosses and employees towards ‘office antics’.

SME bosses (70%) say they are ‘unconcerned’ about the threat of legal action, suggesting they are unaware of potential pitfalls. Even in today’s politically correct society, half (50%) find it acceptable to display ‘sexy celebrity’ calendars or rate the relative attractiveness of colleagues (49%), which may potentially cause offence. This is despite more than half (55%) of those workers surveyed claiming they would consider legal action if office behaviour crossed the line.

In fact, almost nine in ten (87%) SME bosses say staff need to be ‘grown up’ over office antics, with eight in ten (82%) believing there is nothing wrong with office banter and two in five (42%) saying it is not their role to regulate it. Half of UK employees (51%) disagree and believe their boss should do more to reign in unacceptable behaviour.

With the Christmas party season approaching, employers should be especially aware of the fact that ‘banter’ can easily cross the line to harassment. Over half (58%) of the UK workers surveyed expect colleagues to get drunk and misbehave at their festive bash, and two thirds (66%) think conduct is worse if parties are held in the office – as many companies are likely to do this year to cut costs.

Questionable conduct seen regularly in UK workplaces includes:

1. Use of nicknames for colleagues (61%)

2. Swearing (59%)

3. Use of pet names such as ‘love’, ‘babe’ and ‘hon’ (47%)

4. Hugging (42%)

5. Banter of a sexual nature (35%)

6. Arguments/shouting (33%)

7. Jokes of a religious, racial or sexual nature (28%)

8. Discussions about most/least attractive colleagues (16%)

9. Bullying (15%)

Callum Taylor, small business expert at Hiscox, comments: “In the modern workplace one employee’s banter can easily turn into another employee’s lawsuit. With 70% of employees citing behaviour in the workplace as often offensive, our research highlights an area of workplace culture that SME bosses must be more aware of in order to avoid unexpected legal action.

“This is a year round issue but one that will become particularly relevant in the office Christmas party season, particularly with many companies opting to cut costs and have their celebrations in the office. Having in place a clear code of office conduct and ensuring that behaviour falls within acceptable boundaries could help prevent a damaging and expensive legal action.”

Macbeth Chartered Insurance Brokers are business insurance specialists. Based in Reading, we have particular specialist knowledge in Property insurance, Business combined insurance, Liability insurance, Professional Indemnity insurance, Cyber Liability insurance and Motor Fleet insurance. For further information, call Tony Gibbs on 0118 9165480.

Author: Tony Gibbs | November 30th, 2009

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Tony Gibbs
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