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‘Homophobic, xenophobic, sexist banter: I don’t know if this is normal practice on building sites’

Ask the Expert: ‘He likes the job and has talent for it but I worry for his mental health’

‘The boss regularly calls my son soft, stupid or thick, among colourful expletives.’ Photograph: iStock

Question: My 18-year-old son started an apprenticeship this summer. He has successfully passed the eight-week trial period and has been offered the apprenticeship by his employer. My son is a diligent, hard-working boy.

However, he does not like the homophobic, xenophobic, sexist banter that happens regularly with this employer and because he doesn't participate his boss calls him "soft" or a "snowflake".

His boss is also aggressive, threatening and manipulative. He seems to be using my son as the whipping boy. This man has a quick temper and a rough manner, and if he is angry for whatever reason he will verbally lash out at my son. My son has come to dread these outbursts and is telling me that he is nervous going to work.

His boss isn't showing him the ropes or mentoring him. For example, he regularly sends him to the van to pick out a tool that he hasn't named and if my son asks what the tool looks like, his boss calls him "stupid" or "thick". I have left out the many colourful expletives that would normally precede the above adjectives. He has threatened my son that if he leaves, he will "kick him up the hole". I worry for my son's mental health in the long term.


My husband and I have no experience in the building world, so we don't know if this is normal practice and used as a way of "toughening up" apprentices. My son really likes the work and seems to have a talent for it. We worry that if he leaves, he will only encounter similar behaviour again with the next employer, if this is the culture on building sites.

Also, if he leaves, we are wondering the best way to do it. Under normal circumstances, he would speak to an employer and explain face-to-face, but he is telling us that this man will verbally abuse him, and will do it in front of the other men on site, so my son wants to text him to avoid what he anticipates will be a shaming and embarrassing situation.

We would really appreciate your advice.

Answer: Reading your question, it strikes me that your son is clearly being mistreated and bullied in his place of work. I don't think it is a defence to say that this is "part of the culture of building sites" or some process of "toughening up" apprentices.

Everyone deserves to be treated with respect in the workplace and all employers are obliged under legislation to have anti-bullying policies in place to protect their employees. I am sure there are many other building sites with better cultures and other bosses who would appropriately mentor and support your son (rather than bully or humiliate him).

The question is what your son should do about what is happening. He could try to resolve things in his workplace by making a complaint under their anti-bullying policy. If they don’t have a visible or adequate policy, you can contact the Workplace Contact Unit in the Health and Safety Authority who will contact his employer by letter asking for their anti-bullying policy and then send this to him (This can be done without his employer knowing who he is).

Of course, starting such a process is stressful and difficult and it is understandable for your son to want to leave to seek a better position in a new employment.

It is also perfectly reasonable for him to look to do this in a way that prevents further bullying. I would suggest he takes time to consider his options and seeks some support from specialists who know about dealing with these workplace issues. The websites for the Health and Safety Authority and Citizens Information are good places to start looking for more information and additional advice.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See