Tackling bullying in the workplace

By Anthony Wolny | 22nd September 2018 | 12 min read

With most adults spending a significant proportion of their lives at work, the right to work in a safe and comfortable environment is indisputable. It should be guaranteed that employees can attend their place of work and confidently perform the functions of their role free from any type of workplace bullying.

However, despite this largely being understood at a base level, the UK is still considered to have something of a problem with workplace bullying. A YouGov poll for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed that up to 29 percent of people have been the victims of bullying – that equates to up to 9.1million people, a huge section of the UK workforce. A survey conducted by UNISON backs these findings, with 60 percent of their 6,000 respondents reporting that have either experienced or witnessed bullying within their workplace. Additionally, an ACAS poll conducted in 2015 revealed that they took around 20,000 calls to their helpline per year regarding bullying and harassment – this figure had stayed fairly consistent for over five years.

What constitutes bullying behaviour?

Bullying behaviour within the workplace is normally characterised as behaviour or actions that are offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting. Bullying can also constitute an abuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. It can undertaken by an individual or group of people, that create an intimidating or humiliating work environment for others around them. Bullying is normally conducted with the purpose of harming their dignity, safety and wellbeing.

Some examples of bullying behavior within the workplace include:

  • Spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone by word or behaviour
  • Exclusion or victimisation
  • Unfair treatment
  • Overbearing supervision or misuse of power/position
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Undermining competent workers by overloading them or constantly criticising

What doesn’t count as workplace bullying?

It is difficult to properly categorise what constitutes workplace bullying, as the way actions and conversations are perceived is entirely dependent on the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Many employers fail to see the legitimacy of claims of bullying, and can significantly underestimate the effects that a workplace bully can have on individuals.

However, broadly speaking, it is unlikely that bullying is occurring when:

  • Minor disagreements over workplace projects, workloads or tasks take place
  • An employee is asked to undertake new tasks that are reasonable and relevant to their role
  • An individual or team is required to relocate within the office for legitimate reasons
  • Minor personality clashes occur that do not involve aggression or upset on other side

Are employees protected from bullying by law?

Bullying as an individual concept is not against the law, but the waters are often muddied due to the fine line between bullying and harassment. If a colleague or manager is behaving in a way that employee deems to be intimidating or offensive, it could be construed as workplace harassment, which is illegal under the UK Equality Act 2010.

To be clear, examples of harassment include any instances of unwanted behaviour that relate to:

  • Gender, sex, age or sexuality
  • Marital status, pregnancy, or maternity/paternity rights
  • Race, religion or personal beliefs
  • Disabilities, additional needs or reasonable adjustments

These areas are identified as protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

Why could bullying be occurring in my workplace?

Research shows that workplace bullying is most common in organisations with poor workplace climates. It is normally instigated by someone in a more powerful position than the target of the bullying, and is frequently directed downward from a manager or senior manager to a subordinate. Whilst many studies have been conducted into the particular character traits of bullies, research has mainly been proved to be inconclusive, and often shows that traits associated with bullying may not be displayed unless brought to life in negative workplace environments.

These environments can institutionalise and normalise ill-treatment and bullying behaviour, with many choosing to brush off bullying behaviour as simply the way in which ‘things are done.’ This then leads to a resigned acceptance of any ill-treatment pervading the working environment.

Other tangible areas that can lead to a culture of bullying include poor job design, work intensification, long-term job stress, workplace conflict, job insecurity, cultures of self-interest, and institutional power imbalances. Other pressures can also arise from significant restructuring and organisational change.

What could the cost of bullying be to my organisation?

An ACAS report showed that the economic impact of bullying-related absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity was estimated at £13.7billion in 2007, and reflected a 1.5 percent reduction in overall UK productivity. This equates to a financial impact on GDP of approximately £17.6billion.

In addition to the human cost of ill treatment, there are other compelling reasons for you to do what you can to prevent it. These include:

  • Sickness absenteeism
  • Heightened labour turnover
  • Lower organisational performance and quality of service
  • Reduced productivity
  • Employee assistance/counselling costs
  • Industrial action and unrest
  • Loss of public goodwill and reputational damage
  • Lost resources and management time
  • Financial penalties and compensation costs

What are my responsibilities as an employer?

As an employer, you have a duty of care towards your employees, and must take reasonable steps in order to prevent bullying and harassment within your working environment. You also responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 for the welfare of your employees.

It is well within your interests to have a clear and concise policy that covers both bullying and harassment, and also links directly to your main grievance and disciplinary procedures. This will ensure that you have a clear protocol to follow, which will provide you with consistent, fair and legal channels in which to investigate and take action on claims of bullying.

What should a bullying and harassment policy contain?

Your policy on bullying should include a written statement of commitment to anti-bullying within your organisation, and an acknowledgement of how much bullying harassment can cause major workplace problems.

You should then ensure that it goes on to list clear and specific examples of what constitutes bullying and harassment, as well as stating that these behaviours will result in formal disciplinary action should they occur. You must also make sure that you have clearly outlines the responsibilities of the business directors, managers, supervisors and individuals in relation to stamping out bullying and harassment, as well as outlining a timescale for action should a case arise.

What process should be followed around bullying at work?

In a first instance of bullying within the workplace, your employee is advised to keep a diary or a record of the following areas:

  • Date, time and location of incidents
  • What was said or done, and by whom
  • The names of any witnesses to the situation
  • If there have been incidents directed at other workers
  • How the harassment has made them feel, including effects on health and working practices

Your employee is likely to then bring their detailed concerns to you for an informal conversation or meeting. If it is their line manager who is doing the bullying, they may choose to approach a different member of staff on a similar level about their concerns, or they may refer directly to the HR department.

At this point, you may offer to speak to the person accused of bullying on their behalf, or you could offer to call an informal meeting to try and resolve the issue. If you undertake these courses of action, and implement changes or actions, and the informal approach does not resolve the issue satisfactorily, then it is likely the employee will choose to raise a formal complaint.

At this point, you must follow your formal grievance procedures as laid out within your company handbook or employment contract. You should also be aware that the employee can also make a harassment claim at this point under the Equality Act 2010.

Will an employee take legal action on bullying?

If bullying and harassment is not dealt with effectively and swiftly, the end result could be hugely detrimental for both yourself and the employee in question. If the mutual trust between yourself and an employee is broken, and they do not feel that the situation has been appropriately resolved, then they may feel that they have no option but to leave.

This can then constitute constructive dismissal, and, if taken to an employment tribunal, it is highly likely that you will be held responsible for the acts of bullying or harassment that have been committed against the employee. You could also find that a claim is brought against you due to a failure to protect your employee’s health, safety and welfare at work under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.