How to minimise and manage workplace bullying

In 2015 Acas warned that bullying in the workplace was growing and said businesses need to take the issue much more seriously and improve their anti-bullying policies.

Unfortunately it seems workplace bullying is still an issue, and indeed our research found that nearly one in ten employees cited workplace bullying as their number one cause of workplace stress, with other reports estimating the amount of employees who have been affected by bullying as high as 75%.

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It’s also estimated to cost businesses around £18 billion a year in associated absence, turnover and productivity so it’s important for the company, as well as the employee, that bullying is effectively managed and stopped where possible.

What is workplace bullying?

Whilst we know that bullying can be a problem, it’s not always clear exactly what bullying is. It can be hard to pin it down precisely, but some examples include spreading cruel rumours, purposefully denying someone training opportunities when they should be included and regularly undermining them. Remember that whilst bullying isn’t against the law, harassment is. You can distinguish between the two by remembering that harassment is when the unwanted behaviour is related to factors such as age, sex, disability, race or sexual orientation.

Workplace bullying can take many forms, some of which make it harder to spot. Bullying in the workplace can happen:

• face-to-face
• by letter
• by email
• by phone
• over social media

Bullying can also be hard to spot if the victim is embarrassed and concealing what’s happening. Someone new to (or returning to) the world of work may also feel that this treatment is ‘just how it is’ and be reluctant to speak out.

Effects of workplace bullying

The consequences of workplace bullying are felt keenly by the victim, but they can impact your business too. Some potential effects of workplace bullying are:

• Increased levels of stress and nervousness
• Difficulty sleeping
• Triggering more severe mental health issues, such as PTSD, depression and anxiety
• Being preoccupied with the bullying and unable to focus on their tasks
• Absenteeism
• Loss of self-esteem
• Lower productivity
• More likely to leave the company

When does workplace banter become bullying?

Workplace banter can be a positive way to help your team bond and create a friendly work environment. However, there have been cases where banter slides into bullying or harassment, so it’s important to strike the right balance.

Jokes, banter or pranks could all become bullying if the behaviour is unreasonable or repeated. Where the target feels humiliated or upset by the behaviour, it’s no longer ‘just a joke’ and shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

Employees should be empowered to challenge banter they think crosses the line, without having to worry about any negative repercussions.

When does workplace bullying become illegal?

Remember that whilst bullying isn’t against the law, harassment is. From the rise of the global #MeToo movement, many of us are more aware of the devastating consequences for survivors of workplace harassment. However, it can still be difficult for some to draw the line between ‘banter’, bullying and criminal harassment. You can distinguish between them by remembering harassment is when the unwanted behaviour is related to factors such as:

• Age
• Sex
• Gender identity
• Sexual orientation
• Disability
• Race
• Pregnancy or maternity
• Religion or beliefs

Who is at risk of workplace bullying?

• New colleagues – they are less likely to have built a support network in the office than someone more established
• Younger or more inexperienced employees
• Older employees
• Someone who makes the bully feel insecure – a bully will often seek to build themselves up by tearing a perceived threat down
• Whistleblowers often find themselves targeted after speaking out

Seven ways you can help to identify and reduce bullying in your workplace

Considering the devastating impact bullying can have on both individuals and your business, it’s well worth spending some time devising a strategy to help minimise and manage it in your workplace. Having a proactive approach can help to build trust and credibility, as well as spotting problems sooner.

1. Create an anti-bullying policy

If you don’t have a formal policy yet, create one now. This is critical, as employers are responsible for preventing harassment and will be liable for any harassment suffered by employees. Use this policy as an opportunity to make the company’s anti-bullying stance 100% clear.

It’s important that employees understand what acceptable behaviour is and that they will be taken seriously if they do report it. Many employees may be worried that they will be accused of ‘overreacting’ or that others will consider them weak, or not up to the job, if they find the actions of others intimidating. Your bullying policy must therefore make clear expected standards, relevant procedures and the consequences that bullies can expect to face.

2. Train line managers

For effective change to take place, you need to get line managers on-side and prepared to commit to a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. To get this underway relevant training will need to be supplied, because, while 80% of managers know that bullying occurs in their workplace, 37% say they have had no proper training, according to figures from The National Bullying Helpline.

It can sometimes be hard to recognise symptoms of bullying therefore the training should help identify how to recognise bullying tactics and spot signs of stress, as well as provide managers with tips on how to deal with colleagues who are being bullied, or are doing the bullying.

3. Ensure there is someone to talk to

Part of the issue with addressing bullying is that the victim often feels isolated and confused. They might not feel comfortable reporting it to their line manager, especially if the bullying is being done to them, or someone else in their team, or they may simply be unaware of the process for doing so. You can solve this problem by outlining the exact procedure in the anti-bullying policy, including detailing who is available for them to talk to – such as their line manager or HR officer. It might also help to reiterate this point – and thus help remove the shame and stigma surrounding bullying – through a separate email or perhaps a mandatory companywide meeting.

4. Provide access to helplines

External helplines can provide employees with access to trained counsellors who support them if they are being bullied. With Benenden Healthcare for Business, from day one of joining your employees will have access to a 24/7 mental health helpline as part of their membership. 

5. Update surveys and interviews

Update your employee satisfaction surveys and exit interviews to include a section on bullying behaviour in the workplace. You can use this data to gain an understanding if there is a problem with bullying at your workplace as well as to measure the success and efficacy of a new policy.

6. Lead by example

Once your position has been made clear and the policy is in place, it needs to be acted upon. The senior management team should enforce the zero-tolerance approach to bullying which will help set standards and create a culture of anti-bullying. This means bullying shouldn’t be accepted at any level of the company.

If senior managers have been accused of bullying behaviours, it’s important to investigate this seriously. It is crucial that those with the most responsibility aren’t abusing their position, and that they can be held accountable.

7. Keep the conversation going

To stay on top of this issue and continually demonstrate your commitment to creating an anti-bullying workplace, you need to keep the conversation with your employees going. This could mean regular training days or a mention in the workplace newsletter.

Workplace bullying has terrible consequences for individuals and businesses alike and it simply shouldn’t be tolerated. By following the above steps, you can help stamp out this unacceptable behaviour and establish a bully-free workplace.

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