Unacceptable behaviour- harassment and conflict - for employees

What can you do if you experience unacceptable behaviour such as bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and other issues of concern?

Norsk versjon - Uakseptabel atferd - mobbing og konflikter - for ansatte

Topic page Speak up! | HSE for employees

See also: Sexual harassment | Whistleblowing

Every employee at NTNU must have a fully satisfactory working environment

The basic requirements for the psychosocial working environment are described in Chapter 4 of the Working Environment Act.

Systematic efforts must be made to maintain a good working environment and culture. A key factor in this is the teamwork between managers, the safety delegate service and elected representatives. Managers must focus on preventive working environment initiatives by encouraging employees to provide input through various forums and in employee development and appraisal interviews. The working environment Survey (ARK) provides an indication of how employees experience the working environment, and it is an important tool for discovering any challenges in an operating unit.

Each employee has a duty to contribute to a good working environment. This means working actively to create a positive and safe working environment. One aspect of this is ensuring that the employer or safety representative is informed as soon as anyone becomes aware that harassment, bullying or other improper conduct is taking place.

What is a personal conflict?

Academic organizations like NTNU thrive on professional disagreements. These may emerge as conflicts of interest or conflicts of opinion on the same issue, which must be seen as part of a lively university environment. You are then on the green level of the staircase in the diagram below. Employees do not need to be protected from professional disagreement, but from personal conflicts that the individual experiences as a burden, and that may arise as a result of academic discourse, among other factors.

Although no two conflicts are identical, there is a pattern of escalation that often emerges in conflict situations (see the conflict staircase below). Awareness of the development stages is a helpful starting point for recognizing a personal conflict. The need to find solutions usually grows as one climbs the staircase.

Illustration of the conflict staircase, consits of seven steps

Source: Website for BrancheFællesskabet for Arbejdsmiljø for Velfærd og Offentlig administration: arbejdsmiljø

7. Polarization

6. Open hostility

5. Hostile perceptions

4. Dialogue is reduced

3. Development - The problem grows

2. Focus on the person

1. Disagreement

The progression up the conflict staircase may vary over time. A conflict often develops over a long period, perhaps several years, but in exceptional cases the development from green to red may take place in one meeting.

The basic requirements for the working environment in the Working Environment Act

The basic requirements for the psychosocial working environment that trigger a duty to take action are set out in the Working Environment Act (arbeidsmiljøloven) as follows:

The concept of a “fully satisfactory working environment” is a legal standard that is clarified and supplemented by the more specific provisions of the Act, including harassment, adverse mental strain, improper conduct, etc. This is a minimum requirement for a satisfactory standard that should be expected in a working environment and does not necessarily mean that all risks are eliminated. Even if each of the individual environmental factors is satisfactory seen in isolation, the total stress may still be unacceptable. The various factors must therefore be considered as a whole.

The various underlying concepts are described in more detail in NTNUs retningslinjer for håndtering av personkonflikter, trakassering, utilbørlig opptreden mv. (NTNU guidelines for managing personal conflicts, harassment, improper conduct, etc. – PDF, in Norwegian).

The right to be heard is a key principle of the rule of law in this type of case. According to this principle, the parties have the right of access to documents that concern them, to present their arguments and to refute what opposing parties or others have asserted in connection with the case. Anyone who has a complaint directed against them will experience this as highly stressful if they cannot defend themselves. It is especially problematic if complaints are made in confidence to people in a position of power (such as a manager) over the person accused, without the person who is accused being aware of this.

Must I accept my situation in the workplace?

When behaviour (actions, omissions or statements) and incidents are investigated, a distinction is made between “adverse” and “foreseeable” strain. Incidents that are considered adverse are also to be regarded as unjustifiable. They are violations of the Working Environment Act that management must follow up with action. Incidents that are foreseeable and to be expected may be experienced as unpleasant by individuals, but are not violations of the Working Environment Act. Foreseeable incidents are situations that the individual must tolerate in a working day. To differentiate between what is foreseeable and what is adverse and unjustifiable, the manager must start an objective and thorough process that includes conducting an investigation (fact-finding). In major cases, fact-finding may be stressful for those involved while it is in progress, and it may take time. In minor cases, fact-finding may be straightforward and clearly structured, taking less time. It may still be experienced as stressful by those who are involved. The following are examples of adverse incidents, omissions or behaviour, which may also be improper conduct:

  • Unjustified exclusion or withholding of necessary information
  • Wrongfully accusing people of poor performance of work, undervaluing academic or professional skills, and unfairly depriving people of duties and responsibility
  • Ostracism/freeze-out and exclusion
  • Addressing someone in an inappropriate way, hurtful joking
  • Scolding and verbal abuse

For the individual, it may often be difficult to see their own case in an objective light. The individual’s subjective experience of feeling offended or subjected to something improper must be considered in the light of what is generally (objectively) experienced as adverse or foreseeable.

Who can help me to assess what I should do?

You decide where you are on the conflict staircase. In the green and yellow zones of the staircase in particular, it may be helpful to speak in confidence to some of the people mentioned below.

Before you report an issue, you can discuss it in confidence with:

  1. The occupational health service (BHT)
  2. An employee/student representative
  3. A lawyer, doctor, psychologist or other professional who has a legal duty to protect confidential information
  4. The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority

You decide yourself which information and how much information you provide about the issue.

  1. The occupational health service (Bedriftshelsetjenesten, BHT) is a free and independent service that NTNU employees can contact for advice. The employer’s authority to issue instructions does not apply to the occupational health service. The service also has a duty of confidentiality. This means that the service must be a neutral party when it provides assistance in cases involving personal conflicts, harassment, improper conduct, etc. You can also contact the occupational health service as an independent third party if you are not sure whether your own experience provides a basis for a complaint or whistleblowing report.
  2. Employee and student representatives. Union representatives safeguard their members’ interests and will often act as advisory assistants in this type of case. Employee representatives are not subject to the employer’s authority to issue instructions when they assist their own members.
  3. Lawyers, doctors, psychologists, etc., who have a legal duty to keep information confidential are professionals whom the individual can consult. NTNU does not normally cover expenses for this kind of assistance, if the employer does not take the initiative for this.
  4. *The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority* can provide general information in conflict situations. See also the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority’s website about the psychosocial working environment (in Norwegian).

Employer, manager, safety representative. If you notify your employer (line manager, other manager, HR and HSE manager) or safety representative, they must take the issue further. Under the Working Environment Act, they have a duty to act in various ways. When the employer becomes aware of the case, this triggers a duty to act, and the line manager becomes responsible for the formal handling of the case. Safety representatives who become aware of such cases must notify the employer because they have a statutory duty to cooperate.

A good colleague can provide valuable support in a difficult situation. But keep in mind that close colleagues may be put in a difficult situation if you tell them about something that you want to keep confidential. Your colleague might find that they need to take sides in the matter, facing the dilemma of deciding whether to keep information secret to respect your confidentiality or to exercise their duty to cooperate, which obliges them to notify the employer.

What options for taking action do I have?

As an employee, in practice you have three options for taking action when you feel that you have been offended or that your working environment creates a burden in other ways.

  1. I choose not to say anything (no action). As an employer, NTNU encourages everyone to notify their employer if they experience an unacceptable psychosocial working environment, including personal conflicts, harassment, or improper conduct. If you still choose not to report the issue, you must not spread information about such experiences and incidents to colleagues and others in the workplace. If stories of adverse episodes circulate as rumours and gossip, the person you are accusing has no way of presenting their side of the case (the adversarial principle). If there are repeated episodes or if the situation does not improve, you can report the issue at any time.
  2. I will speak to the occupational health service, or an employee representative, or I will raise the issue directly with the other party (informal procedure). If you want to discuss incidents that you have experienced yourself and regard as undesirable, you can choose to seek advice from a third party (the occupational health service or your representative). You can also do this if you are in doubt about whether your own experience provides a basis for reporting the issue. You can also contact the person(s) responsible for the perceived incident, and provide feedback to them about your experience, reaction, and boundaries. Such feedback must be objective and justifiable. Once you inform a manager about the issue and state that you will contact the person in question yourself, the manager owns the case and is responsible for satisfactory processing of the case. If you then contact the person(s) yourself, you must first get the manager’s consent. The manager must then ensure that the principle of neutrality, objectivity and relevance is safeguarded and that the person accused has a genuine opportunity to be heard.
  3. I will report the situation to the employer or the safety representative (formal procedure). If you feel that you have been offended or know about someone who feels that an employee has offended them, the formal procedure is to report the incident(s) or the situation(s). The way you report the issue may have different names, such as expression of concern, whistleblowing, complaint, notification, report or other terms. In principle, the term used in an initial phase does not matter for the individual who makes the report, but managers and executive officers will have a clearer overview if different terms are clarified. For this reason, a distinction is made between a complaint, whistleblowing and notification.
  • COMPLAINT: When you report incidents or situations you have experienced where you feel offended, you submit a complaint to your employer.
  • WHISTLEBLOWING: Whistleblowing relates to issues of concern (such as violations of laws and regulations, violations of ethical codes or serious issues that might harm the university or society). When you report on incidents relating to others where you have been a witness or have been informed, you submit a whistleblowing report.
  • NOTIFICATION: The term “notification” is described in Section 2-3 of the Working Environment Act (“duty to cooperate”), which obliges all employees to notify the employer and the safety representative about any faults or defects that might involve danger to life or health. Generally, you then act according to your “duty to cooperate” in the Working Environment Act.

How should I report the situation?

  1. To whom: Normally you should inform your line manager. If for any reason you do not have confidence in your line manager, you can inform the manager at the next level up. In exceptional cases it is also possible to inform the director of the HR and HSE Division directly. It is also possible to inform the safety representative, but bear in mind that the local safety representative is often a close colleague. It is therefore also possible to inform the senior safety representative.
  2. Content: A complaint must be submitted formally, either as a letter or in a meeting. If it is handed over in a meeting, the manager must write minutes, which you as the complainant must sign. It is not appropriate to deliver an oral complaint in confidential conversations with the manager at social events or similar occasions.

The complaint must include information about the person who is complaining and the person accused, and must state the reason for the complaint. When the reason is stated, a specific description of the sequence of events, the time and place of relevant incidents, and the name of any witnesses must be included. A complainant may not be anonymous to the person(s) they are complaining about, in the interests of the other party’s right to be heard and to contradict the complainant.

If you decide to inform your line manager about the situation, the manager must treat the information in confidence, but must at the same time follow NTNU’s conflict management procedures (pdf in Norwegian). Managers have a duty to act and must ensure a balanced approach to all their employees. To enable the person you are accusing to make a statement on assertions made against them, your name and the incident(s) must be communicated to the person in question.

  1. Retaliation and reprisals: Retaliation and reprisals related to whistleblowing, complaints, etc. are prohibited under the Working Environment Act. The prohibition applies to both the employer and to colleagues. It is strictly enforced and is intended to provide genuine protection for anybody who chooses to report issues in the workplace that are perceived as a burden.

Can I report the issue anonymously?

  1. When the issue concerns me

It is not possible to make an anonymous report (complaint) about a working environment issue that affects you. Anyone who is accused of such issues has the right to be heard. This is not normally possible unless the person making the complaint is known to the person accused.

  1. When the issue concerns others

There is greater potential for making an anonymous report when the issue does not affect you personally, but the name of the person on whose behalf you are making the report must be disclosed if the employer is to have a genuine opportunity to investigate the issue. Read more about this on NTNU’s web page about whistleblowing.

Someone has complained about me

If complaints have been made against you, you are regarded as a party to the case. You are entitled to information on what the case is about and to an opportunity to explain your side of the case (the legal principle of the right to be heard) before a conclusion on the case has been reached. No action must be taken against you until processing of the case is complete and a conclusion has been reached that you are responsible for violating the law or ethical codes.

What happens after I have reported the issue?

The lowest-level manager with responsibility for human resources will be the owner of the case, as long as the manager is impartial (not disqualified).

The manager has a duty to take action and must ensure that the matter is investigated in an objective and justifiable manner. A fact-finding investigation will normally be conducted to determine the facts of the case. This includes conducting meetings and interviews with the parties and any witnesses, as well as reviewing relevant documents and any other evidence.

When an investigation has been completed, the parties must be allowed to read and comment on the report before the manager reaches a conclusion on the case. A party is someone who is directly involved in the case – usually the person(s) making the complaint and the person(s) against whom the complaint is made. Whistleblowers, witnesses and colleagues who are indirectly involved are not parties.

When the manager has reached a conclusion, actions may be taken depending on what the investigation has revealed.

If no evidence of an unsatisfactory working environment has emerged, the case will be concluded without taking action regarding the working environment.

However, if an unsatisfactory working environment is discovered, action must be taken to correct the working environment for the person(s) affected.

If the investigation reveals that individuals have committed acts, omissions, etc., that violate the duty to cooperate, the duty of loyalty, or the provisions of the Working Environment Act regarding the right of others to a fully satisfactory working environment, it is necessary to consider whether a warning should be given or whether other personnel-related measures should be directed against the person in question.

When a case is finally decided, all employees must show the ability and willingness to act on the employer’s conclusions and measures as part of their duty to cooperate and their duty of loyalty.


Policy and handling guidelines for the prevention of harassment, unacceptable behaviour and difficult personal conflicts (pdf, in Norwegian)

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