How to combat workplace bullying

Written by
Changeboard Team

10 May 2015

10 May 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Workplace bullying on the increase?

Incidents of bullying in the workplace are increasing. According to a recent report by the TUC, bullying is now a major concern on employees’ minds, second only to stress.

With current economic conditions still making it difficult for businesses, it's likely that the recession has contributed to the rise in office bullying. Managers are now under pressure to deliver more with less. As a result, some are coping by being tougher on staff, relentlessly chasing targets and deadlines or being overly critical.

Bullying is commonly defined as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, or abuse or misuse of power, which violates the dignity of the recipient, or creates a hostile environment which undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures the recipient.”

Some of these things are obviously fairly subjective. It’s hard to predict how someone will react to your behaviour and what may seem harmless to one person could be interpreted in a very different way by another individual. This is why an open, communicative culture works best – if employees feel their managers are being tough with them, staff need to be able to talk about it so both parties understand how they can work best together and get the desired results.

Where bullying does persist, the problems for HR departments are only too clear. Not only can it damage the health, self-esteem and morale of the individuals concerned, but bullying can be detrimental to the rest of the workforce and the performance of the entire organisation. HR managers must work hard to stamp out workplace bullying, for the sake of employees and their organisations at large.

How to spot the signs of bullying

Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace is a rather complex issue. The problem may manifest itself in various ways, from managers setting excessive workloads, blocking promotion opportunities and humiliating staff, to even more serious matters including sexual harassment and physical violence. In addition, it is not always those higher up the career ladder that are the culprits, with bullying commonplace between colleagues of the same level.

In order to beat the bullies, you must first be able to spot the signs of bullying. This cannot happen without effective communication. In large organisations, it may be difficult for HR managers to keep tabs on each and every member of staff, so it's vital that employees have as many opportunities as possible to share their concerns.

Face-to-face time is extremely important. But so too is recognising that some individuals may not feel comfortable reporting issues face-to-face, so bullying may go unreported or get worse, if this is the only option on offer to staff. Employee satisfaction surveys and online forums are good alternative methods to help ensure the wellbeing of staff but without the need for making the face -to-face appraisal the only forum in which staff members can raise such issues. These alternative channels need to be clearly promoted to staff, via office noticeboards, staff intranet and word of mouth.

Create a bullying policy

Although improving communication can increase the likelihood of bullying being reported when it does occur, it cannot stop the problem at the root cause. According to CMI’s Bullying in the Workplace report, a lack of management skills is the most commonly cited reason for office bullying. Suspicious, secretive and authoritarian styles of management are often associated with higher levels of bullying, and HR managers need to discourage these ways of working.

This can be a challenging task in some cases, as managers may not be aware of the detrimental effects that their management styles can have, or even that they are seen as bullies at all. What some managers may deem as strong leadership, some employees may interpret as aggressive. The best way to resolve this is to make managers more aware of how they come across to others. This can be achieved through training on which management styles deliver the best results.

Likewise, employees may also wrongly interpret certain types of behaviour as bullying when managers are merely being to-the-point. Business environments are fast-paced and often managers do not have the time to discuss things as expansively, or patiently, as they might like. Occasionally, managers do need to be straight-talking and decisive, but there is a fine line between strong leadership and bullying and this should never be crossed. 

Training managers and employees should go a long way to deter bullying, but organisations also need to have a policy in place to deal with problems if they do occur. All organisations should have a bullying policy in place, which should form part of your induction training so everyone in the organisation is aware of what does and doesn’t constitute bullying and the measures that will be taken if bullying is discovered.

HR must take a stand

HR managers need to be instrumental in developing any policy, so you must consider organisational culture, type and the prevailing management styles when drawing up the document. The policy should be well-promoted to staff.

With workplace bullying on the rise, now is the time for HR managers to take a stand. Just as bullying has no place in the playground, it must not be tolerated in our boardrooms and offices either.