It may surprise you to hear that there is no law against bullying in the workplace. Harassment is defined in the Equality Act 2010, but bullying has no legal definition.
Whether, or not, bullying is defined in law, employers have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 that means they are responsible for the welfare of their employees in the workplace. Bullying or harassment at work can significantly impact a person’s health and wellbeing and just as with many aspects of wellbeing, these negatives have repercussions on productivity, success and profit.
The Health and Safety Executive define workplace bullying as involving ‘negative behaviour being targeted at an individual, or individuals, repeatedly and persistently over time.’
The Advisory and Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) claim in their ‘Workplace Trends of 2016’ whitepaper, that there are signs workplace bullying is on the increase. Their helpline received over 20,000 calls regarding bullying and harassment in 2015 ‘some people reporting truly horrifying incidents including humiliation, ostracism, verbal and physical abuse.’ Other research estimates that as many as 40% of us have experienced disrespectful or humiliating behavior.
Despite the lack of a legal definition, many workplaces have anti-bullying policies in place but those policies are sadly not delivering. This is clearly an area where it is not enough to simply have a policy in place. A more proactive approach must be taken.
Workplace bullying can have long-lasting and significant impact on the victim, their loved-ones and those who witness the bullying. These effects can include symptoms such as:
- Loss of motivation at work
- Loss of self confidence
- Low self esteem
- Isolation from work colleagues and/or family and friends
- Increased absenteeism
- Poor health
- Mental health issues
- Suicidal thoughts
- Post-traumatic stress disorders
Chief Operations Officer at Acas, Susan Clews, says that organisational climate is key to a successful anti-bullying and harassment policy. It is essential that employees feel that it is possible to raise concerns and managers able to enforce the policies. A working environment should prioritise mutual respect and engage everyone in challenging and refusing unacceptable behaviours.
Clear guidelines on what is classed as unacceptable, bullying or harassing behaviour will minimise the oft-quoted excuses of ‘We were just having a laugh’ or ‘They’re over reacting.”
What does bullying look like?
Bullying can take many forms and it doesn’t always take place in face-to-face scenarios. Cyber bullying is on the rise and many organisations seem ill-equipped to spot or deal with it. Email, telephones, text messages, written notes etc can all provide a means to carry out bullying behaviour. In many ways, cyber bullying is more insidious than physical bullying as it is harder to leave in the workplace.
Whatever the medium and means, workplace bullying can take many forms:
- Insults, rudeness or intentional embarrassment
- Spreading rumours or stories about individuals
- Excluding and ignoring people or any other form of victimisation
- Unwarranted personal or professional criticism
- Making staff members perform demeaning, degrading or pointless tasks
- Threatening behaviour
- Unwanted sexual advances and harassment
- Preventing promotion or other professional development
Creating a workplace that takes pride in preventing these behaviours is part of a wider set of policies that incorporates employee health and wellbeing across the board. Happier, healthier, fulfilled employees are less likely to feel the need to take out frustrations or unhappiness on their co-workers. Job insecurity, stress, poor work processes etc all correlate to higher cases of workplace bullying.
Acas found a strong link between restructuring and organisational change and workplace bullying. In these times of economic and social upheaval, change is hard to prevent and organisations must adapt to keep afloat. Yet, considerable thought must be given to how that change is enacted and the impact it will have on your employees. Good people management is an essential skill through these processes.
Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust Anti-Bully Tsar, Dr Makani Purva approached the issue of workplace bullying with the creation of the Professional and Culture Transformation (PACT) academy. PACT’s three core objectives were to educate, intervene and influence.
A 90-minute course helped to clarify what was meant by workplace ‘professionalism’ and discuss actions for dealing with unprofessional or bullying behavior. Those who took part left feeling more confident about tackling such behavior.
Workplace bullying can rarely be resolved by one person and requires the engagement of a wider team.
What can you do?
Be clear – Clearly define unprofessional behaviour, bullying activities or harassment.
Empower – Provide a clear communication process to enable employees to confidently report behaviour that they are uncomfortable with.
Act – Bullying begins small and escalates. The sooner you can catch it the easier it is to resolve.
Educate – The duty of care lies with the employer so the burden of responsibility for reporting cannot lie solely with the employee. Training management staff on how to spot and deal with bullying and harassment enables them to feel able to handle such scenarios.
Resolve – Focus on resolution, not punishment. Interventions such as mediation, one to one feedback can resolve the situation for everyone involved.
Manage – Always consider the human element in all business decisions. Be mindful of the impact that organisation change will have on staff mood and morale. Create a positive working environment for your employees to thrive in and help your business to grow.
Most organisations will have to deal with workplace bullying or harassment at some point and the research suggests it is on the rise. But is that any wonder given the changing times in which we live? So many people are under pressures of all shapes and sizes and it’s unsurprising that those will impact on our working lives.
Thankfully, as detailed above, a little time and consideration can help to minimise the impact wherever possible. Like so many health and wellbeing issues, bullying is far easier to prevent than it is to cure.
Need to talk to someone about bullying in the workplace? Find out about counselling here.