Dealing with Claims of Bullying in the Workplace

For Anti-Bullying Week, we explore the most effective ways of tackling claims of bullying

Its common sense that as employers, we need to provide our staff with as safe a physical working environment as possible. However, we can sometimes overlook that our legal duty of care extends to the mental wellbeing of our staff at work, as well as their physical safety.

Bullying can be extremely damaging and destructive to mental wellbeing – not just for recipients of bullying behavior, but also for those who witness it. Witnesses to bullying often feel upset, angry and powerless. They may experience feelings of guilt that they haven’t stopped the bullying.

ACAS describe bullying as “any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended”. They go on to explain that bullying may not always be obvious to others, and that it doesn’t just occur in person but can take place through all forms of communication (phone, email etc). While bullying is often thought of as a persistent, an isolated incident of behaviour, if serious, can constitute bullying in itself.

It is always best to tackle claims of bullying swiftly, without delay. However, tackling bullying claims effectively usually requires some reflection and sound judgment. The needs, rights and protection of complainants will often be at odds with the needs and dignity of the Person Complained About (PCA), who may be unaware that their behaviour is causing distress. It can be a delicate matter to address the behaviour, and find a resolution that brings the best possible outcome for both parties.

If the alleged bullying is mild in nature, and has only recently occurred, an informal “nipping it in the bud”, may be the best way to proceed. Have an in-depth conversation with your team member who feels they are being bullied, and agree a way of proceeding that they feel comfortable with. This will usually mean that someone has a discussion with the PCA to explain to them which of their behaviours needs to stop, and why it needs to stop, i.e. the impact their behaviour has on others. If the person complaining feels able to have this discussion safely themselves, this can often be a very successful resolution. If the person complaining doesn’t feel able to do this, a manager or HR representative may need to be present for the discussion – this can again be a quick, successful resolution.

Often, people just want the behaviour to stop and any ill-feeling between colleagues may dissipate quickly, as soon as it is addressed. PCAs may be shocked to learn that their behaviour has had the impact that it has; they may be contrite and wish to make amends.

However, while informal resolutions can be ideal, they are not always possible or appropriate. If the alleged bullying behaviour is severe or ongoing, a formal investigation will be necessary, even if the individual disclosing the behaviour doesn’t want to make a formal complaint.

With allegations of severe bullying, formal investigations serve to protect all parties: the person making the disclosure, the PCA, any and all recipients of the bullying behaviour and the organisation as a whole. All parties will be best served by such disclosures being investigated promptly, formally and properly. In any such cases, the immediate guidance of your HR department will be essential.

Hopefully this gives a brief outline of how bullying claims are effectively and safely dealt with. However, prevention is better than cure, and there is much that can be done to reduce the chances of bullying occurring in the first place.

Bullying tends to flourish in situations of power imbalance – whether this means economic power, physical strength, privilege or perhaps just an individual with a powerful persona (think of the “big personalities” in your team).

It can be argued that in a sense, all workplace bullying arises from economic power imbalance – most people rely on their jobs for financial income, and may therefore tolerate bullying behaviour out of financial necessity. This leaves all low-paid or low-income workers particularly vulnerable.

Because power imbalance facilitates bullying, any steps you can take to reduce power differentials will work as a preventative measure for bullying. For example, is your department structure too hierarchical? Do the people at the bottom get listened to? Do the quietest people feel able to speak up? If not, how can you make sure that they get heard within the team?

Under the Equality Act 2010, we all have a number of “protected characteristics”, upon which we cannot legally be discriminated against, at work. The protected characteristics are: age, ability / disability, gender reassignment, marital status, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and pregnancy.

The protected characteristics can be a useful way of thinking about some ways that power and privilege can impact on each individual. For example, in times of heightened racial division, who within your team may be particularly vulnerable to bullying by virtue of their race? What can you do to prevent this happening? In your given context, who might be most readily excluded by virtue of their gender, sexuality or marital status? What can you do to be more inclusive to all of your team members?

Managers need to create a culture of respect for all. The team culture will clearly differ from one workplace to another, but in every case, professionalism must come first. In some cases, fun or “banter” may be an established part of the industry culture, or may even be considered essential to the work, but even in such instances, camaraderie should come second to professionalism. In such industries, managers will need to be imaginative and show their leadership qualities, to create a tone that allows for professionalism and fun to exist in parallel. Professionalism always includes respect for all.

Finally, incompetent workers often test other people’s patience and therefore, poor performance can also trigger bullying behaviour occasionally. If you have someone within your team who is incompetent at their job, it’s best for all concerned that you address the poor performance swiftly too.

Follow these prevention tips and you should be able to create a happy, empowered, mentally healthy and high-performing team – who are a joy to work with!