Why are employers losing the battle against bullying?

With the government rocked by allegations of bullying against Home Secretary Priti Patel, employers are faced with a difficult question: are we overlooking similar behaviour in our workplace?

More synonymous with school playgrounds, bullying at work is all too often disregarded. In actual fact, according to an illuminating report by CIPD, 15% of workers have experienced bullying in the last three years, and almost a quarter say such issues are swept under the carpet. So why are organisations having such a hard time ousting intimidating, insulting and offensive behaviour?

1. It means having to face an uncomfortable reality

No organisation wants to learn that it has a bullying problem, and having to confront some harsh truths and ask difficult questions is never pleasant. Like many things in life, when ignoring the situation is the easier option, it’s a tempting road to take.

Often, employers will convince themselves that some individuals are just more confrontational, more direct in their approach, or more unfiltered. However, chalking up behaviours to “that’s just the way they are” is a dangerous approach to take, not least because it leaves your organisation exposed to legal repercussions. While an employee can’t take their employer to an Employment Tribunal over bullying, if the conduct falls under the scope of harassment and concerns one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, an employee may have grounds for a claim. In this way, while you may fear opening a can of worms, it is far better to tackle potential bullying head-on or it may cost you considerable stress, time and expense down the line.

2. Employers don’t know how to act

In many cases, bullying is brushed off not because those responsible don’t want to address it, but because they feel ill-equipped to tackle the situation effectively. Without a set process to follow, and the correct training to support managers, situations can be handled poorly or not at all.

For instance, managers often resort to mediation, which is an inappropriate response to workplace bullying as it ignores the power imbalance, suggests both parties are equally culpable, and places the target of the bullying in a particularly vulnerable position.

For this reason, all organisations should have a clear bullying and harassment policy in place to help managers identify instances of bullying, understand their responsibilities and take action. First and foremost, managers will need to able to differentiate actual bullying from conduct that employees simply take exception to.

Examples of bullying behaviour include:

Repeatedly ridiculing, insulting or belittling somebody
Attempting to embarrass or undermine them in front of their peers
Intentionally excluding or ignoring them
Spreading malicious rumours
Constant unjustified criticism
Obstructing development opportunities
Setting unreasonable work expectations

Although there is no comprehensive list of bullying behaviours and definitions vary, a good question to ask is: Would most people consider the action unacceptable?

Being chastised for poor performance, on the other hand, is not likely to amount to bullying if done professionally.

By investing in training and developing a set procedure for dealing with workplace bullying, you can help boost managers’ confidence, remove any barriers to invention, and promote consistency in the way matters are dealt with.

3. Instances aren't reported

If it isn’t done in your immediate eyeline or brought to your attention, it’s easy to assume that bullying isn’t an issue for your organisation. However, all too often, victims of bullying are reluctant to speak up, and it’s important to ask why and how your culture or practices may be contributing to this problem.

Aside from a lack of understanding, there are a number of other reasons why bullying is often under-reported. For example:

The perpetrator is the recipient’s line manager or a senior member of staff, leading the recipient to fear repercussions or believe that they’re fighting a losing battle.
The perpetrator is friendly with a line manager, causing the line manager to be unwilling (or feel unable) to challenge their behaviour or pursue a complaint made against them.
The recipient doesn’t trust that their complaint will be taken seriously based on the way similar incidents have been handled in the past.
0 %
of those who have been bullied or harassed say their manager was responsible

As an employer, there are several ways to encourage employees to report instances of bullying, including developing a clear reporting procedure, following through on the promises made in your policy by consistently taking a firm stance against unacceptable behaviours, addressing favouritism, and discouraging friendships between levels.

While you might fear an influx of bullying reports, employers shouldn’t be afraid to bring these issues to light. After all, it’s far better to have the opportunity to address the situation than face a loss of confidence in management, absenteeism, losing a member of your team, or irreparable damage to your reputation.

5 top tips for dealing with bullying in your workplace

  1. Be a role model. Ensure senior staff embody the kinds of behaviours and values you want to promote – and watch out for toxic managers (hint: look for teams with low productivity, high absence rates and high turnover).
  2. Create procedures. Remove roadblocks by developing a clear grievance procedure. Ensure all staff know how to make a complaint and managers are trained in how to deal with them.
  3. Check in. As employees may be anxious about coming to you with concerns, regular one-to-ones may help bring issues to the surface. An open-door policy is key.
  4. Never appease the bully. Not only will making light of the situation allow it to continue, but by choosing to gloss over bullying, you send a clear message about what behaviours you’re prepared to accept and allow a toxic culture to take hold. Have the difficult conversation.
  5. Don’t brush it off. If an employee raises a grievance relating to alleged bullying and you choose to ignore it, they may be able to resign and claim constructive dismissal.