Q & A: My coworkers are making fun of a fat colleague; what can HR do? [UK]

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Question:

I’ve heard coworkers make fun of an overweight colleague because he is fat. I think the teasing bothers him, but he hasn’t made a complaint. What can HR do?

– London, UK

Answer:
As I’m sure you know, making fun of an employee or letting it happen can be grounds for a bullying and/or harassment claim, whether or not it’s been reported to HR. Claims courts in the UK and US have overwhelmingly demonstrated that managers are expected to prevent or stop teasing before it defines a working environment.

However, because weight is not a protected characteristic under the UK’s Equality Act 2010, teasing someone for being fat will not be illegal as it would be if your colleagues were making sexist or ageist remarks. Protected characteristics are the key difference between bullying and harasssment; bullying is behaviour that is malicious, exclusionary and/or deliberately undermining, and harassment is unwanted conduct that is related to a protected characteristic.

Harassment = bullying + a protected characteristic

In this specific case, HR may start an investigation if your colleague makes a complaint to them directly or if someone else makes them aware of bullying. If your colleague contacts HR, you may be interviewed as a witness though you are unlikely to be included in other parts of the investigation for confidentiality reasons. The outcome of an investigation depends on its findings and your company’s own policies on informal resolutions or disciplinary action.

Advice:

  • Name the problem- tell your colleague about your concerns
  • Encourage your colleague to read any HR policies on bullying and harassment
  • Let him know that he can discuss the teasing with HR, who will look to resolve the issue
  • Suggest that your colleague keeps a written record of the teasing, including names, dates and what was said

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