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Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying can often be hard to identify and even harder to manage. It comes in many forms, occurs at every level and is often unnoticed and unaddressed until it leads to more devastating consequences

Information for Employees

Workplace bullying has become a silent epidemic, one that has huge hidden costs in terms of employee well-being and productivity. Also known as psychological harassment or emotional abuse, workplace bullying involves repeated behaviour which can wound and seriously harm another person, not with violence, but with words and actions. Bullying can damage the physical, emotional and mental health of the person who is targeted.

Bullying is recognised as a major cause of stress in the workplace and the law stresses it must be dealt with in the same way as any other health and safety hazard. If an employer fails to acknowledge and/or deal with bullying, they are breaking the law and this can negatively impact on staff morale, productivity and poor work quality

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 employers have a responsibility to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Failure to do this is in breach of an individual’s employment contract and they could find themselves facing fines, compensation and even a prison sentence.

What is the impact of bullying behaviour?

Bullying can and does create a negative working environment. Their behaviour can lead to increased levels of stress among employees, higher rates of absenteeism, mistrust between staff and higher than normal attrition and in an economic environment where jobs still are scarce, standing up to a workplace bully has become difficult. 

All managers have the right and the authority to manage and strong management is not the same as bullying and it is important not to confuse the two, however, there is a very fine line between strong management and bullying, but when the sufferer becomes distressed, that line is crossed. 

If you genuinely feel you are being treated unfairly by a manager or colleague, it is possible you are being bullied. Although there is no comprehensive list of bullying behaviours and there is no one type of person who is likely to be a bully, the list below should give an idea of some behaviour which constitutes workplace bullying.

  • Harassment
  • Teasing
  • Competent staff being constantly criticised, having responsibilities removed or being given trivial tasks to do
  • Shouting at staff
  • Sabotaging team efforts
  • Persistently picking on people in front of others or in private
  • Deliberately blocking promotion
  • Regularly and deliberately ignoring or excluding individuals from work activities
  • Verbal intimidation
  • Setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work or setting impossible deadlines
  • Overruling decisions without a rationale
  • Consistently attacking a member of staff in terms of their professional or personal standing
  • Incivility
  • Regularly making the same person the butt of jokes
  • Purposely withholding business information
  • Demeaning others
  • Manipulation

What you can do if affected by bullying

Keep a record. Whenever you have been subjected to an act of bullying, make notes in writing of the incident, what was said and/or done, when and where it happened, who was responsible for the act, how you felt about it, potential witnesses and so on. Notes are required to provide the necessary evidence if successful action is to be taken against the person or persons responsible for the bullying.

As bullying can increase the feeling of isolation, it is important to speak to someone about what is happening to you.

Do not retaliate. However hard it may be, it is important to refrain from retaliation as you may get seriously hurt or in trouble.

Complain in writing formally about what is happening to you. If possible, gather enough evidence to demonstrate there has been a consistent pattern of negative behaviour directed at you and include this with your complaint. Ensure you keep copies of all evidence and correspondence. Your company should have a complaints and grievance policy and it is important you follow the procedure written in the policy.

If you are not the one being bullied, but you see it happening to someone else, offer your colleague support and encourage them to follow the above steps.

Other steps to take

  • If you are a member, contact your union representative
  • If your health is affected, speak to your GP

Information for Employers -​ Rude, Difficult, or Insubordinate? 

Most employees come to work ready and willing. Unfortunately, a few others come with negative baggage rooted in authority-figure, entitlement, or attention issues and this can lead to major problems for the manager/employer.

The worst thing a manager can do is miss the clues or dismiss negative actions. Bad behaviour often starts small. You may just put it down to the employee ‘having a bad day,’ but if you don’t intervene, it may escalate until you have a real concern on your hands.

No one likes to confront bad behaviour, but if you don’t, it can erode your credibility and the respect of your other employees, create a dysfunctional working environment and impact on staff morale and productivity. Failure to confront emboldens bad actors. It can give them the impression that you’re weak, afraid and incompetent.

Anyone behaving badly at work has usually successfully behaved badly elsewhere. That means they have had plenty of practice, know how and when to act out ‘safely’ and look forward to the rewards that go with it. Those ‘rewards’ may not be what you think. There can be great satisfaction in just watching a manager squirm, undermining you with other employees, treating a colleague unfairly, getting a lighter workload, or the chance to take the employer to a tribunal.

If you feel this is happening to you or in your organisation, this could be management bullying and you have to act immediately. Although, like employee bullying, there is no comprehensive list of bullying behaviours and there is no one type of person who is likely to be a bully, the list below should give an idea of some behaviour which constitutes workplace bullying:

  • Ignoring you or conveniently ‘forgetting what you said’
  • Failing to acknowledge a greeting or positive gesture
  • Taking their time responding to your voice or e-mail
  • Disregarding an assignment or disputing its due date
  • Being late or not showing up for meetings and/or appointments

These behaviours can be subtle and deceptive and can come accompanied with excuses, justifications and debate about your interpretation of their actions. 

Confront them privately and immediately. You are expected to uphold company performance standards and that includes appropriate employee behaviours.  If you ignore and let ‘little’ things go, they will turn into bigger things.

Difficult behaviour can disrupt the way your team operates. It may include:

  • Arguing with you or disputing work assignments and processes
  • Constantly questioning your decisions
  • Interfering with the work of others and stirring up negativity
  • Unwillingness to work with others and complaining about co-workers

You can protect yourself and these employees, by having clear performance goals and behavioural standards in writing that you review with them formally and then informally when there are rough patches.

Explain to them that their disruptive behaviour can lead to a poor appraisal, possible promotion and potentially their job. Don’t accept any arguments. Follow through on what you say, no matter how unpleasant they get. If they leave or try to sue you, your HR and legal team will intervene. Don’t let your employees hold you hostage!

Insubordination - the last straw! 

The crowning glory for bad actors is getting away with blatant insubordination toward you, their manager, by:

  • Refusing to follow a direct work assignment/order
  • Calling you a name in front of other employees
  • Calling you a name privately, but afterward bragging about it to other employees

A lot of opportunities to address bad behaviour would have been missed by the time things get this far. Here is where termination or legal action is the next step and is one that is a lot more stressful and time-consuming. This is why it is important to address low level issues as they arise and help the employee to adopt the right behaviour early on.

Of course, there will always be an employee who knows how to push a managers ‘buttons’. However, a manager’s job is to listen and understand what is motivating unwanted behaviour and take action to defuse it constructively. It is not for the manager to own the employee’s reasons for their actions but to help them change.