Unfair treatment at work
Harassment or other unfair treatment at work can put employees’ health at risk. Employers have a duty to intervene in all cases of harassment that come to their attention.
Harassment can occur in any type of workplace. Employers have a duty to monitor their employees and intervene in any signs of harassment proactively. Early intervention usually makes it easier to resolve the issue. Harassment can also be prevented, for example, by agreeing on a code of conduct in advance and ensuring that every member of the work community knows that cases of harassment will be dealt with systematically.
What constitutes harassment?
The Finnish Occupational Safety and Health Act prohibits all kinds of harassment that put employees’ health at risk or in danger. Harassment refers to systematic and persistent offensive conduct or behaviour.
Harassment includes, for example,
- repeated threats
- malicious or suggestive comments
- belittling or scornful remarks
- persistent unwarranted criticism and sabotage of performance
- attacks on reputation or status
- systematic ostracism or exclusion
- sexual harassment.
These kinds of conduct have the potential to damage employees’ health.
Abuse of authority is also a form of harassment. Examples include
- systematic unwarranted scrutiny of performance
- making arbitrary changes to the nature of employees’ work or their workload
- introducing unlawful amendments to agreed terms of employment
- inappropriate use of powers
- allocation of humiliating tasks.
What does not constitute harassment?
Not all unwanted behaviour in a workplace constitutes health-harming harassment or other unfair treatment within the meaning of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. There is no need to intervene in inconsequential, isolated incidents, such as occasional inappropriate remarks.
Some employees may find the way in which their employer uses their authority unreasonable, but employers are entitled to plan, manage and supervise the performance of their employees as they see fit. Employers also have the right to dictate their employees’ job descriptions, powers and procedures, and to impose a code of conduct.
The following do not constitute harassment:
- employers’ fair and reasonable decisions and instructions concerning work and the management of work
- general discussions concerning problems relating to work and the work community
- justified intervention in employees’ practices
- deserved warnings
- ordering an employee to undergo a work ability assessment if there is a justified reason to do so.
Prevention of harassment and unfair treatment at work
Employers have a duty to be aware of any instances of workplace harassment and to take any reasonable steps to prevent harassment. Employers must systematically monitor the social dynamics of the work community and evaluate the need for preventive action.
Harassment can be prevented, for example, by
- adopting a zero-tolerance policy (a clear statement by the management that harassment will not be tolerated)
- agreeing on rules to ensure proper conduct in the workplace
- putting in place procedures for addressing harassment in a systematic and efficient way
- educating employees on the importance of avoiding and preventing harassment
- training line managers to identify, address and resolve cases of harassment.
What to do if you experience harassment
Confront your harasser as soon as possible. Explain to them as clearly as you can why you find their conduct offensive and tell them that you will not tolerate their behaviour. Provide tangible examples of what it is in their conduct that you find inappropriate. Ask them to stop or change the way in which they behave towards you.
If you are afraid to confront your harasser alone, you can ask a colleague or your occupational safety and health representative or shop steward to back you up. You can also turn to occupational health care professionals for help.
If your harasser still continues to behave in an inappropriate manner, you can let them know that you intend to report them to your line manager. If your harasser is your line manager, you can tell them that you will go straight to their line manager.
It is important that you keep a record of the harassment, its frequency and your own actions to make it easier to deal with your case.
How to report incidents of harassment
Many workplaces have a procedure in place for dealing with harassment or unfair treatment. Find out what the procedure is in your workplace and follow the procedure. If you do not know whether there is a procedure, ask your line manager, occupational safety and health representative or shop steward.
If your employer does not have a procedure for reporting harassment, tell your line manager that you want to speak to them. If your harasser is your line manager, you can go straight to their line manager.
You can ask your occupational safety and health representative, for example, to back you up. There is also a form (in Finnish) for reporting incidents of harassment to your employer.
Tell your line manager to address the issue straight away. Ask them what action they intend to take. If your line manager has not acted on your report within a reasonable period of time, you can go straight to their line manager.
Role of the occupational safety and health authority
If your employer does not react to your report of harassment or if their actions prove inefficient, you can turn to your region’s occupational safety and health authority for advice and help. The Regional State Administrative Agencies’ Divisions of Occupational Safety and Health act as regional occupational safety and health authorities.
Your occupational safety and health authority can provide instructions and advice and order your employer to act on your report of harassment.
However, occupational safety and health authorities cannot provide representation for individual employees or resolve conflicts. It is not occupational safety and health authorities’ responsibility to lay blame or settle disputes, or to help employees seek damages for harassment.
How to react to reports of harassment
Every reported incident of harassment must be investigated. Employers can learn about harassment from individual employees, occupational health care professionals, shop stewards or occupational safety and health representatives.
The first step is to form an objective view of the circumstances and the course of events. Employers should ideally react to reports of harassment within two weeks of learning about the issue. If there is a procedure in place for dealing with workplace harassment, that procedure should be followed.
If necessary, experts such as occupational health care professionals can be consulted. However, the employer is always ultimately responsible for investigating each case and taking appropriate action.
How to intervene in harassment
Once the facts of the case are clear, action must be taken to address the situation. The Finnish Occupational Safety and Health Act does not specify how workplace harassment should be dealt with. However, employers have a duty to take whatever steps are necessary to stop unlawful harassment.
Managerial staff have the authority to prohibit any harassing conduct or unfair treatment that they observe in the workplace. It is the management’s responsibility to set clear rules for what is and what is not acceptable conduct.
Any conclusions drawn and instructions and orders given should ideally be documented. If the situation cannot be resolved by giving instructions and advice, the employer can resort to disciplinary action, for example, by giving the harasser a formal warning.
Addressing underlying issues
If an employer concludes that a report of harassment is unfounded, they must clearly explain the reasons for their opinion to the interested parties. What employees perceive as harassment can sometimes be attributable to other issues relating to the organisation of work or social interactions within the work community, which the employer must address.
For example, an employee can feel that they are being harassed if their tasks or responsibilities, or the procedures that they are meant to follow, have not been clearly defined, if they are not given all the information that they need or if their manager does not give them enough support. Psychosocial workload factors play a big role.
Harassment can be prevented by agreeing on rules to ensure proper conduct in the workplace, a procedure for dealing with incidents and a clear organisation of work and a division of responsibilities.