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Bullying may be something typically associated with the school playground, with a shocking one in five children reporting to have been victims of bullying in the last year, according to a 2019 survey conducted by charity Ditch the Label. Sadly, bullying behaviour is not always left behind at school and can be transferred to the workplace.
A report by the CIPD (Chartered Institute for Professional Development) which surveyed over 2,000 people, revealed that 15% of them admitted to being bullied in the workplace at some point in the past three years. More shockingly, half of them did not report it. In addition, a quarter of employees who responded to the survey felt their company ‘turned a blind eye’ to instances of bullying or harassment.
Bullying is an issue that needs to be taken seriously at all levels. By understanding exactly what workplace bullying is, how to report it and how to deal with it, an anti-bullying culture can be fostered within workplaces, making them a safer and more productive environment for everyone.
Bullying can happen to anyone in any type of workplace, from a tight-knit, family run firm to a huge corporation. If you experience bullying at work it can make you feel very alone, however it is an unfortunate fact that far too many people are bullied in the workplace each year.
Bullying can happen between peers, where one member of staff targets another; a boss or manager may bully a subordinate; or, occasionally, a group of employees may target one individual. There isn’t a ‘type’ or person that can fall victim to bullying.
However, you can empower yourself against bullies by:
- Knowing your worth – no one has the right to make a person feel plagued by self-doubt; people who bully are usually deflecting things they don’t like about themselves. The problem is THEIRS not YOURS.
- Knowing your rights – there are laws that protect people from threatening and aggressive behaviour as well as discrimination. There are also guidelines to protect you from any type of bullying within the workplace.
- Speak up – whether you are a victim or someone that witnesses bullying, don’t stay silent. Try to find the strength to speak up and call out the bullies for what they are: weak.
Although bullying is traditionally thought of as violent acts or overt threats, it can take many forms including behaviour that is designed to erode a person’s sense of self-worth. Workplace bullies often use tactics such as spreading lies or rumours, criticising a person’s work, appearance or intellect, isolating them, threatening them reduced hours or even with termination of their contract.
Traditionally, you could expect most workplace bullying would, by definition, take place within the workplace. Now, with the use of the internet, mobile phones and social media, bullying that began in the workplace can easily begin to encroach on a person’s life long after they have clocked out from their shift.
Knowing what to look for, how to deal with it and most importantly understanding exactly what is, and what isn’t, acceptable within a workplace, can go a huge way towards tackling the problem.
Signs of workplace bullying
Bullying can be brazen and obvious, but more often it is done more subtly. This can lead to victims feeling isolated and alone. You may not know what to look for, or what exactly constitutes bullying, as it is sometimes construed as ‘office banter’ or a simple personality clash.
Bullying is usually something that is sustained over a period of time and is a repeat pattern of behaviour from the bully against the victim, which will usually escalate in seriousness over time if left unchecked.
Some common signs of bullying in the workplace you may experience could include:
- Constant put downs/remarks about your work.
- Personal insults, for example about your appearance, weight, clothes, accent etc.
- Racist/homophobic language.
- Unwanted sexual advances/sexual harassment or misconduct.
- Unreasonable requests.
- Attempts to shame you in front of colleagues.
- Threats or intimidation tactics.
- Attempts to turn other colleagues against you.
- Spreading lies/rumours about you.
If you are experiencing a pattern of behaviour from someone that is making you doubt yourself, feel bad about yourself or leaving you extremely anxious and stressed, it is likely you are experiencing bullying and this needs addressing.
What do I do if my boss is the bully?
In most workplaces, employees are directed to report any issues they are having directly to their line manager. If you are concerned about bullying in the workplace and it is your line manager who is instigating the bullying, you may be unsure where to turn to for help.
A bully boss may exhibit any of the behaviours listed above, but as they are in a position of power, they are uniquely placed to abuse this power against employees they wish to bully.
You may have a bully boss if you recognise some of the following:
- Overbearing supervision/checking up without probable cause/setting colleagues up to fail.
- Angry outbursts/swearing/vulgar language, particularly when directed towards one person.
- Intrusive behaviour/monitoring such as listening in on conversations or spying.
- Isolating behaviour, for example consistently excluding a certain colleague from social gatherings.
- Constantly undermining or questioning an employee’s abilities, especially in front of the team.
- Repeatedly overlooking specific colleagues for promotion or reward without cause.
- Demonstrating a pattern of refusing reasonable requests such as time off, especially when allowing them for others.
- Showing a lack of care and empathy when it is obvious their actions are causing distress.
How to deal with workplace bullying
If you are concerned about bullying in the workplace, it is best to try to deal with the issue before it gets out of hand. Often, bullies will pick on someone that they don’t feel will be willing or able to stand up to them.
Sometimes by simply showing your strength and telling your bully that their bullying behaviour is wrong and explaining how you feel will cause them to stop. This is best done in front of witnesses and always try to maintain a calm and professional demeanour even if you feel emotional – no shouting or swearing.
If this does not work or you do not feel confident to do this (especially if the bully is your superior at work) then there are other ways to tackle the problem. Keep a diary of what has been happening which can be used as evidence further down the line. Try to incorporate not only the incidents but how they affected you emotionally.
For example, ‘Today, X said this to me at the water cooler again and started laughing at me. I felt uncomfortable and embarrassed.’
You should also speak to your colleagues about how you feel and reach out for support. Your colleagues may offer you some words of comfort, but they may also be important witnesses if you later need to report the bullying in an official complaint. Note down in your diary who witnesses each incident of bullying with dates and times.
The more factual evidence you can present, the smaller the chance your bully has of denying the allegations or trying to minimise the incidents.
Reporting workplace bullying
Initially, to report workplace bullying, it is best to follow the complaints procedure as set out in your contract or employee handbook. Have this on hand to refer to.
You can make a complaint informally (this is usually done face to face in a meeting with your supervisor/line manager) or formally (where you put your complaint in writing). Employers have to address and investigate all formal grievances that are put to them, so you can rest assured your complaint cannot go ignored.
If you have a dedicated HR department at your workplace they can also be an excellent resource to help with any issues staff are experiencing. Being bullied will often leave people feeling extremely vulnerable. Remember that you are entitled to bring someone along for support at any meetings you attend relating to the complaint you have filed, either your union representative or another individual.
The Equality Act 2010
Employers are required by law to ensure their staff are not discriminated against or treated unfairly at work.
You are protected under the Equality Act 2010 if you are harassed at work for reasons such as:
- Pregnancy/maternity or paternity rights.
However, bullying for any reason within the workplace is still unacceptable. If you are feeling intimidated, threatened, targeted or consistently belittled at work, your employer should take this seriously and intervene.
After following your company complaints procedure, if you still do not get the support you need within your workplace you can explore other options available to you. In extreme cases this can even result in legal action and an employment tribunal.
Dealing with bullying
Some bosses may be empathetic with you after receiving your complaint, but unsure how to deal with workplace bullying, especially if they have not dealt with this kind of issue before.
Employers can deal with or even prevent bullying in various ways:
- Ensure they have a clear bullying and harassment policy that all staff are aware of and that this behaviour is not tolerated.
- Use industry-specific examples in the policy, not just something generic – this way staff understand exactly what is/isn’t acceptable and feel that management have knowledge in this area also.
- Training exercises can help to prevent bullying. Line managers can be trained in how to deal with situations; staff can be taught what to look for and how to react. These training sessions also allow staff to see that it is okay to talk about bullying. This can be done as wider outreach around mental health in the workplace.
- Staff complaints should be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. Staff should see that perpetrators are disciplined accordingly and that victims are not punished for speaking up.
- Pin some anti-bullying posters to the notice board with helpline numbers or websites on or mention it in the staff newsletter. This can also be tied into annual awareness days. This will foster a culture within the workplace that bullying is real, it is wrong and it will not be tolerated.
If your boss fails to take action based on your complaint or the bullying continues, you can reach out for help or seek advice from a reputable place such as ACAS – they have informative pages on their website, specifically aimed at understanding workplace bullying and harassment [https://www.acas.org.uk/discrimination-bullying-and-harassment]. They also have specially trained advisers you can speak to on their helpline.
Whether you are concerned for yourself, a colleague or an employee, bullying can take its toll on your mental health and damage the morale of the entire team. There is an employer guide to work related stress in our knowledge base.
If you find yourself overwhelmed at work, especially because you feel targeted by your boss or peers, it can make you feel anxious and depressed. Looking after your mental health is so important. Make an appointment with your GP and talk this through. They may be able to suggest some coping mechanisms for you or make a referral for you to speak to a counsellor.
Your GP can even sign you off work if they think it is necessary so you can take a short sabbatical to deal with your feelings and regroup your thoughts.
Bullying is unacceptable within the workplace and it is not something you have to simply put up with. Bullying can take many different forms, all of which will result in a detrimental effect to the wellbeing of the target of the bullying. There are laws and guidelines out there to protect you from enduring this kind of behaviour.
Your company or workplace should have clear guidance in place to report and resolve any issues around bullying. If their procedures fail, or you are unsatisfied with their response, there are other agencies that you can seek help and advice from.
If you are being bullied in the workplace, or have concerns about someone who is, speak up, reach out and sort the issue before it takes its toll on your personal or professional life.