What constitutes workplace bullying?
Organisations have both a legal and ethical responsibility to look after the welfare of their staff; taking preventative actions as well as dealing with any problems in a fair, consistent and professional manner. There's also a clear business case for looking after the welfare of employees. Where employees feel happy and supported, they're likely to be more motivated, committed to the organisation and productive.
The stereotype of bullying is often about an individual being either physically or verbally threatened, but bullying in organisations can take a number of different forms such as repeated uses of:
- Excluding employees from conversations or activities
- Intimidating behaviour
- Setting unachievable deadlines
- Spreading inaccurate or false rumours about an individual
- Deliberately withholding information or resources that an individual needs to do their role effectively
- Constantly changing the tasks that an individual is responsible for
- Constant criticism or insulting comments
- Making offensive jokes (verbally or in writing)
- Removing areas of responsibility
What are the warning signs of bullying at work?
Where bullying exists in organisations, it can lead to a multitude of problems. Negative impacts on morale, team-working, performance and productivity can occur if problems are not tackled appropriately.
In addition, levels of absence may increase along with employee turnover. It would be undesirable for an organisation to acquire a reputation for being unsupportive or turning a blind eye to bullying and may have a negative impact on both their staff retention and ability to recruit new employees.
It's difficult to provide an exact checklist of warning signs as bullying can take many different forms and affect people in different ways. Potential warning signs may include:
- Increased levels of absenteeism
- Reduced productivity
- Inability to concentrate
- Decrease in levels of interaction with colleagues
- Apparent lack of confidence or self-esteem
- Appearing distracted while in the workplace
- Deterioration of relationships (may be both within and outside of the workplace).
The role of line managers
As line managers have the most regular contact with employees, it's important that they understand the organisation’s stance on bullying and that they are trained to spot the potential warning signs.
Line managers must deal with any issues that come to light in a fair and consistent manner (paying due attention to the organisation’s specific policy and procedures) to send out a message to all employees that bullying is not acceptable in the organisation.
What steps can employers take to combat bullying?
To prevent and tackle bullying in organisations, there are a number of steps that an organisation can take:
- Ensure that HR professionals have the necessary skills, knowledge and sensitivity to manage challenging situations.
- Senior managers should lead by example in terms of their own behaviour and how they work with their colleagues.
- Provide line managers with relevant training so that they can identify potential problems and know how to deal with them consistently and fairly if they do arise.
- As behaviours can be interpreted by individuals in different ways, it's important that line managers, senior managers and the HR department are clear about how to deal with some of the grey issues where the case is not clear cut.
- Ensure that all employees are aware of the wide range of forms that bullying can take. Acas define bullying as 'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.' It may also be appropriate to provide examples of the forms that this could take so that employees are clear about what is unacceptable.
- Provide a clear code of conduct for all employees which defines the expected standards of behaviour and illustrates them with appropriate examples.
- Provide information to all new employees about the organisation’s zero tolerance approach to bullying.
- Create a detailed anti-bullying policy which is disseminated to all employees and which clarifies the responsibilities of all of the different stakeholders. This policy should also clearly articulate the time scales that will be followed for different stages of the policy. Reassurance should be provided to employees that their complaints will be dealt with in a professional, supportive and confidential manner.
- Offer contact details of independent organisations in case an employee does not feel able to talk to their line manager in the first instance.
- Work alongside Trade Unions (where they are recognised) to promote an anti-bullying culture.
- Ensure that all employees know who to contact if they have any problems and reassure them that they will be provided with appropriate support.
- Consider providing training for all employees about how to be good organisational citizens and to reiterate the expected standards of behaviour. Line managers should be encouraged to reiterate the importance of active participation in these training sessions.
- Make clear links between bullying and the contents of the organisation’s disciplinary and grievance policies.
- If any cases of bullying are proven (after following the organisation’s policy and procedures, including the appeals process) it's essential that a de-briefing takes place and Lessons learned are discussed.
- In line with good practice, all policies and procedures should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis. The HR department should ensure that any changes in associated legislation are incorporated into updated versions of the policy and procedures. Where changes are made (after being agreed with the appropriate stakeholders) the revised documents and their implications should be shared with employees. If substantial changes have been made, it may be necessary to provide updated training for line managers.