How should employers deal with bullying in the workplace?

Written by
Changeboard Team

26 Jul 2010

26 Jul 2010 • by Changeboard Team

How problematic is bullying in the workplace?

Workplace bullying accounts for more than 40% of grievances and employment tribunal awards can exceed ??100k. Bullying and harassment is a sign of incompetence and a definite sign of abuse and inhumane treatment. Bullies are bad news. Any talent they offer is undermined by the immense destruction they can cause to your reputation and budget in employment tribunals.

The statistics speak for themselves:

  • 8 in 10 workers are affected by workplace bullying: Samaritans Statistics, January 2008.
  • 49% of managers have suffered bullying themselves.
  • 37% of managers say they have had no proper management training.
  • 80% of calls to The National Bullying Helpline are from the public sector.
  • Bullying affects 1 in 4 people in the workplace, today.
  • During 2006, 32% of the complaints investigated by HR&DM were found to be vexatious.
  • The average cost to an employer of going to Tribunal is ??16,000.
  • Tribunal statistics rose by 50% in 2010.
  • BERR alleges that disputes cost the UK ??120 million per annum.
  • 19 million sick days are lost due to bullying per annum.
  • Sickness absence is costing the UK ??13 billion per annum.

(Source: HR and Diversity Management Ltd)

Bullying and harassment signs & examples

Schools are increasingly proactive in dealing with bullying, and both the perpetrator and victim are dealt with appropriately. But some organisations only deal with the problem once it becomes impossible to ignore.

Bullying and harassment strips the victim of dignity and corrodes productivity in the workplace. But what does it look like? It can be verbal or physical. It can involve behaviour which threatens, intimidates, demeans, denigrates, offends, undermines, humiliates and harms the victim psychologically or physically.

Some obvious examples are:

  • Verbal abuse, shouting or comments that belittle people
  • Demeaning jokes or malicious or unfair treatment
  • Ignoring or isolating someone
  • Picking on someone or setting them up to fail in their job
  • Over-bearing supervision or misuse of position, which debilitates rather than supports
  • Staring, leering or language or gestures of a sexual nature
  • Unwanted or unnecessary physical contact of an aggressive or sexual nature
  • Offensive (sexual or otherwise) material that is displayed publicly
  • Direct or subtle threats
  • Offensive gestures
  • Repeated unwanted behaviour which has been objected to

Dealing with the perpetrators

Bullying and harassment may not always be face-to-face, and may take the form of written communications or phone calls from the perpetrator.

The perpetrator can be male or female and may target their victim because of their gender (male, female or transperson) race, ethnic background, colour, religion or belief, sexual orientation, disability, pregnancy or child-care responsibilities, or appearance. Some people are targeted because of who they associate with within or external to the workplace. It's sometimes a subtle one-off incident but can be repeated episodes of varying degrees of severity by one or more people, which target an individual or a number of individuals. 

Any decent modern organisation should find such conduct abhorrent and utterly unacceptable. Costly employment tribunal cases await those that choose to ignore their own internal bullies and will pay the price in reputation, fines in court and high staff turnover.

You probably know who they are. You might be a victim yourself or perhaps youre a reluctant eye-witnesses to someone elses suffering, or perhaps the absence record of their suffering victims tells its own story.

Lets face it; bullying is a form of abuse and there are no legitimate excuses for it. If a subordinates work performance is below par or their behaviour is inappropriate, you manage the situation to correct it, you dont bully, ever. Look in the mirror and say to yourself: Competent managers manage and bad managers bully. Which are you?

What steps should victims take?

People react differently to bullying and harassment. Some try to tolerate it and may even laugh it off, at first. Others may immediately begin to lose confidence and suffer physically and psychologically with stress, lack of concentration, loss of self-esteem, sleeplessness and depression. Some may explode and retaliate in some way. None of these symptoms will help the victim or their productivity in the workplace, and could in fact attract further bullying.

Victims should record incidents and tell someone about it. In the first instance, they should tell the perpetrator to stop and put their concern in writing. They may also consult with HR or a trade union.

The need for training & robust policies

As with the equality agenda, bullying and harassment must be rooted out if organisations are to achieve their productive best, attract and retain the best talent. Training for the entire workforce is essential, so that there's a shared understanding about what constitutes bullying and harassment and how to report and deal with it as a victim or witness. Face-to-face training can be very effective, organisations can also consider e-learning options that should be part of any induction or refresh training package.

Training must be supported by strong HR corporate policies. However, to be most effective, both the training and policy commitment must supported by strong leadership on the issue from those at the top of the organisation; who should display the behaviour that they expect of others. The leadership in the organisation must never collude with bullying because that only encourages the problem and certainly doesnt cure it.

Dealing with claims of bullying effectively

Where training fails to prevent or correct the problem, then disciplinary action should be instituted, which should involve a thorough and objective investigation of the complaint.

No judgment should be reached on an allegation alone; investigate to ascertain the facts. False allegations are possible and do occur. Once the outcome of the investigation is in hand, then a judgment needs to be reached about the evidence rather than any assumption or the original allegation.

Whether the allegation is upheld or otherwise, the organisation should seize the opportunity to remind the entire workforce about expectations regarding minimum standards of behaviour, and reaffirm the unacceptability of bullying and pointing out the availability of relevant training opportunities as well as the consequences for a breach of policy in this area. Where complaints have been upheld, a wise organisation will learn Lessons rather than feel defeated by the outcome.

The Equality Act will mean that employment tribunals can now not only fine organisations but can instruct them to take specific action in the workplace to prevent further tribunal cases on the same issue. So be warned; do it yourself (and do it now) or have the tribunal publicly instruct you to do it.

A serious issue that should be tackled

Everyone should be treated with respect and dignity in the workplace. Bullying and harassment should never be tolerated by anyone. Clear policy and guidance should be issued to all new and existing employees about how to deal with bullying should they become affected by it.

Training on the issue should be mandatory so that no one can say: 'I didnt know' or didnt receive any information or training on the subject. Ignorance is no excuse, and will not stand up in a tribunal.

There was a 50% increase in tribunal cases in the last year so organisations would be wise to make sure they are not amongst forthcoming cases. You are not reading this article by accident; take action on harassment and bullying today.