We spend most of our time at work. Not everybody loves their job, but we all deserve to feel comfortable and at ease in the workplace. Your working environment should be a supportive one, where everyone can work towards their goals without undue pressure or attention.
There's a perception that bullying is something that only happens at school, as if you'll leave education and never meet a bully again. Unfortunately, some people never grow up. Bullying is a problem across ages and environments. It's by no means restricted to school. In fact, bullying in the workplace is more commonplace than you'd think.
Whether it's a critical boss singling out one employee to blame and punish, or a workforce playing repeated pranks on a colleague and choosing to ignore their contributions to a project, workplace bullying is on the rise. In just one year, conciliation service ACAS had around 200,000 calls about bullying and harassment at work, with many people afraid to speak up about being treated badly by co-workers and managers.
But everyone deserves to be heard. In this guide, we'll explore what steps both employees and employers can take to overcome and stamp out a bullying culture.
How common is bullying in the workplace?
There's much more to workplace satisfaction than a good salary. Waking up in the morning and heading into the office in an upbeat mood is beneficial for individuals and businesses, improving productivity levels and general well-being. But what makes a working environment enjoyable? The following factors can be influential in whether people like coming to work or not:
At work, by taking some thoughtful actions, you can make a huge difference to the daily lives of your colleagues.
Although there is no legal definition for workplace bullying, HSE explain that it involves negative behaviour targeted at an individual, or individuals, repeatedly and persistently over time. According to the chair of Acas, Sir Brendan Barber, such behaviour is on the rise in the UK. "Callers to our helpline have experienced some horrific incidents around bullying that have included humiliation, ostracism, verbal and physical abuse," he said.
"But managers sometimes dismiss accusations around bullying as simply personality or management-style clashes, whilst others may recognise the problem but lack the confidence or skills to deal with it." When even those in charge are ignoring signs, it can be difficult to determine what is and isn't bullying.
Bullying in the workplace could be in person, or online. In fact, many bullies suddenly feel a lot braver when they can target people through a computer. But it won't go unnoticed, nor should online bullies get off scot-free with such damaging behaviour. Bullying could include:
Bullying in the NHS: What are the effects?
Bullying is not in your job description. You do not have to put up with anything that makes you feel unhappy or uncomfortable. In this forum, victims of bullying at work report feeling "at their wit's end", "victimised" and "generally made to feel awful."
Some people worry they're being oversensitive, but bullying is likely to affect your self-esteem, not to mention your performance at work, as well as your home life. You shouldn't underestimate how it can make you feel. Nor should you put up with terrible excuses. Some people think they can justify bullying with some of the explanations below:
Being excluded, threatened, or intimidated, is not an example of clashing with someone. Trying to pass bullying off as some kind of management style or as the victim's fault is unacceptable. If you're unsure, Acas suggest asking yourself the following questions to determine whether the way you're being treated is acceptable or not:
To stamp out early signs of bullying, employees need to feel comfortable to discuss changes. If you answered no to any of the questions above, it's likely your worries about being bullied are justified.
It might come as a surprise to some, but bullying isn't against the law. However, if a colleague or superior is being offensive and intimidating, it could be considered harassment – and could be illegal under the Equality Act 2010.
Under this act, harassment is defined as: unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual. The protected characteristics are:
An example of harassment
At work, some of your colleagues keep making comments and jokes saying you're gay. They call you names and have on occasion left things like gay adult movies and magazines on your desk. They all know you're not actually gay. You could have claim for harassment related to sexual orientation.
Source: Citizens Advice
Although harassment can be a one-off incident, it's more frequently a series of incidents or bullying which takes place over time. Indeed, bullying can be unlawful harassment under the act if it's related to one of the protected characteristics.
Acas characterise bullying as: "offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient." The impact of such behaviour can be the same as harassment. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably.
However, unless bullying amounts to something which would be defined as harassment in the Equality Act 2010, it's not possible to make a complaint to an employment tribunal about it. Nevertheless, employers have a 'duty of care' for all their employees and should be taking steps to prevent bullying occurring in the first place.
If you feel the mutual trust and confidence between you and your employer has been broken, you don't have to continue working there. If you've been bullied and harassed at work, you may be able to resign and claim constructive dismissal at an employment tribunal.
Before you do though, we recommend reading the rest of this guide, including the flow chart at the end to see whether there are other ways to resolve the issue.
If you have any queries, it's also worth seeking professional advice. Solicitors are obliged to give you a 30-minute free consultation to find out if you have a case. They'll ask you to recollect events, dates, and any specifics or evidence you may have to see if you've got a valid case against your employer.
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has said that every organisation should have a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy. This belief that no-one should be put in the position where they dread coming to work is widespread, but taking the first steps to tackle bullying can be the most difficult.
Unfortunately, it's common for bullying to come from your superiors. Those who've experienced a bad boss in the past will understand how much it can affect your daily life to have someone in charge that lacks respect for others at work.
"Although bullying takes place at all levels within the workplace, the most common perpetrators are managers. This type of bullying often arises due to an unequal balance of power, with managers attempting to control the behaviour of their subordinates through coercive methods," says Shainaz Firfiray, assistant professor of organisation and human resource management at Warwick Business School.
Just because they're in charge of you, it doesn't mean they can get away with bullying. The policy of any good company will include a designated colleague who you can talk through your concerns with, without fear of being punished for side-stepping your manager. You can show them your diary of events and discuss whether the behaviour was acceptable or not and make decisions on where to go next.
What's more, confidentially is a key part of the complaints process. You should always be treated fairly and sensitively.
Taking legal action shouldn't be your first port of call. But if you feel, despite all your attempts, no progress has been made to stop the bullying, it's time to get advice on your legal rights.
It's important to have tried to resolve the problem with your company first. When you make a claim to an employment tribunal, that's one of the first things they'll ask you. If you can show them a record of the mistreatment, your efforts to resolve the issue, and the inaction from your company, then you could have a claim for constructive unfair dismissal. Bear in mind the following facts:
According to the Equality Act, something can be counted as harassment where the behaviour is meant to or has the effect of either:
As an employer, you have a responsibility for your employees. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you have a legal duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees – and that includes protection from bullying and harassment. With offensive behaviour affecting workers from the shop floor to the C-Suite, it's something for bosses to take seriously.
Without a doubt, workplace bullying will have a detrimental impact on businesses. The cost of bullying-related absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity adds up to £13.5 billion every year.
It is in the interests of every business to make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated, as the effects include:
Of course, all organisations – no matter the size – should have well-known procedures in place for dealing with grievance and disciplinary matters, including information on which staff employees can turn to for work-related problems.
To stop such problems from occurring in the first place, a good policy on accepted behaviour should include:
You could also add information about sources of emotional support. More than anything, though, leaders should be setting a good example to those around them. No matter what a policy says, if someone in charge is treating others badly, it will be seen and accepted as the norm. The way managers treat others is just as important as any formal policy. It's alarming how quickly bad behaviour can infiltrate through a team.
Instead of taking an authoritarian management style, get to know those you work with and consult with colleagues. Encourage openness and be the sort of person others feel comfortable talking to. After all, the signs of bullying are subtle and could easily slip past you, especially if you've got a hectic schedule. You must ensure employees feel happy coming forward with any concerns. That's not going to happen if you've been unsympathetic or aggressive before.
Dealing with and investigating complaints promptly and objectively requires a specialist set of skills. Not every manager will be equipped with the necessary experience – hence why people in HR are such valuable resources to companies. The perception of bullying can vary between individuals, making it important to consider all circumstances before reaching a conclusion. HR professionals are trained to do this sensitively.
However, HR doesn't have the best reputation. There's a misconception they'll immediately start a formal investigation. But that's just one option in the HR tool belt. They're more likely to sit down with the target of bullying confidentially, listen to their concerns and discuss the options available.
Although some issues (such as sexual harassment or workplace violence) may require HR to make formal steps, the decision about what to do next is normally down to the victim. Having HR to support them through this process is beneficial for employee and employer. Options could include:
Counselling could also play a role in dealing with bullying. It's a confidential avenue, perfect for an informal approach without the need for further formal actions. There might be someone trained in the company, or managers could contract counselling services. This should be paid for by the employer. Counselling is a great option if there's no reason for disciplinary action or there's doubt on the complaint.
Where an independent third person is needed, mediation can be used to resolve bullying issues. It's a voluntary process and helps find a solution that all parties can agree to, in order to fix the working relationship. Bullying can be the result of a lack of awareness and unintentional misunderstandings. In these instances, meditation is the ideal way to move forwards. Similarly to counselling, mediators could be internal or external.
Signs of a good employer
Company culture is a hot topic these days – and for good reason. The workplace environment you create can have a huge impact on the productivity levels and success of your business. Saying 'that's just how we do things around here' won't cut it anymore. Good business leaders should be taking active steps to improve employee engagement, as that's how they'll retain talent and create a place people are happy to be.
To encourage your workforce, you've got to create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.
Taking steps to improve workplace culture will increase the success, well-being and heath of your team. Start today.