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A Guide to Workplace Bullying

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By the time they hit the workplace, most playground persecutors have grown out of kicking shins.  But some bullies never grow up and go on to destroy the careers, health and happiness of their colleagues.  Organisations are also impacted by bullying which causes problems with productivity, absenteeism and turnover.  This guide explores what workplace bullying is and sets out the steps to resolve it. 

What is bullying?

There are many different definitions of what constitutes bullying and harassment but this characterisation from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) gives a good summary:

“Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.” ACAS

Sometimes bullying is obvious but it can often take the form of secretive or subtle attacks, public political strikes or harassment framed as ‘banter’.  And it’s not only colleague-on-colleague; managers can be bullies too. 

How to Spot Bullying

Bullying comes in many forms but some of the more common attacks include:

  • Name calling, belittling or spreading rumours     

  • Ignoring, isolating, excluding or victimising     

  • Scapegoating

  • Setting someone up to fail with unachievable tasks or targets or constantly giving them meaningless tasks or the worst jobs

  • Overbearing supervision or misuse of power   

  • Intentionally preventing career progression or blocking promotion or training opportunities

  • Making unwelcome sexual advances      

  • Aggressive behaviour

Bullying can be carried out by one person or a group of individuals or it can be part of the culture, like the bullying and harassment issues uncovered on the British Cycling team.  And it doesn’t need to be in-person either as Avensure HR’s news story on cyber-bullying shows.

What’s the Impact?

Those who suffer at the hands of bullies are left feeling unsure, depressed and in some cases suicidal.
And bullying impacts the performance of organisations too. According to one study:

“The economy-wide impact of bullying-related absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity in 2007 was estimated as £13.75 billion.”

This translated to an estimated loss of £18 billion per year in GDP for the UK economy.

The Legal Position

Despite the terrible consequences that bullying can have, it isn’t actually illegal unless the harassment is offensive and intimidating and related to one of the Equality Act 2010’s protected characteristics:

  • Age, sex or sexuality

  • Gender reassignment

  • Marital status, pregnancy, maternity/paternity

  • Your race, religion, or beliefs

  • Disability

If you or others experience bullying or harassment in relation to any of these features, you may have a case for unlawful harassment. 

What Should Employers Be Doing?

Regardless of whether bullying or harassment meets the conditions for illegality, employers should take responsibility for creating a safe and inclusive workplace culture.  Otherwise, workplace bullying can amount to breach of contract and a violation of employment health and safety laws. 

This three-point check list for employers will help ensure a safe, harassment-free workplace for all:

1.       Set out your position on bullying and harassment in a policy. It should:

a.       Explain what bullying and harassment is

b.      Clearly state that these behaviours will not be tolerated and that they are unlawful

c.      Examples of bullying cases and unacceptable behaviour

d.      The responsibilities of managers

e.      Procedural steps including a grievance procedure and timescales for action

The BBC’s 2017 Bullying and Harassment Policy is a good reference point.

2.       Train managers to recognise bullying and feel confident to act swiftly in line with procedure to nip any cases in the bud.

3.       Go beyond policy to ensure a culture of safety and inclusivity.

For more information, check out this Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace Guide from ACAS.

What to Do if You’re Being Bullied?

Bullying can make you feel very isolated and disempowered.  But there are lots of ways to deal with bullying and reaching out for help is the first step.
Talk to someone; be it a trusted colleague, manager, friend or family member.  Let them know what you’re going through and seek their support

Take action

  • Keep a diary of incidents; who said what, when, where and in front of who

  • Record any other incidents against other employees

  • Record how you feel as a result including any impact on your health and wellbeing

Talk to the person harassing you (if you feel it is safe to do so) or arrange for someone to speak to them on your behalf

  • Tell them how what they are doing is affecting you

  • Let them know that you will pursue it further       

Talk to your manager (or a senior manager if it’s your direct line manager who is bullying or harassing you)

  • Review your workplace bullying and harassment policy so you understand what your employer should be doing

  • Be prepared to let them know what action you want them to take

Take further action with a formal complaint

  • Details of the process should be set out in the related policy documents

  • If the issue is not resolved, you could potentially make a harassment claim if bullying is related to one of the protected characteristics outlined in the article above

If your complaint is unresolved and your position is untenable, carefully consider resigning; you may be able to pursue a constructive dismissal case

The legal position on bullying isn’t always black and white making it difficult to decide where you stand and what you can do.  If you need advice, you can call the ACAS helpline on 08457 47 47 47. 
Or, for more details on how to resolve a bullying issue, read this ACAS Bullying and Harassment at Work Guide for employees.

What to Do if You Witness Bullying?

Under health and safety legislation, everyone in a workplace has responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of those around them. Because bullying impacts individuals’ health and wellbeing everyone has a responsibility to take action if they witness bullying or harassment.

1.       Approach the individual and offer them your support. 
See how they want to proceed and let them know they aren’t alone. 

3.       Then work with them to follow the steps outlined in the section above. 

If they aren’t keen to deal with the issue, you have a responsibility to report the problem to your employer and they are then responsible for taking action.

While bullying and harassment may seem difficult to overcome, it is possible to put a stop to the problem.  If employees and employers work together to prevent, identify and conquer bullying, workplaces will be healthier, happier and more productive.