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Workplace Bullying: How Do You Deal With It?

employee dealing with workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is a serious issue, and it can have a dramatic effect on morale, productivity, and overall culture in the workplace.

But how is workplace bullying technically defined, what are the legal ramifications, and what role does HR have to play in all this? Let's dive into it.

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Workplace Bullying: An Example

Joe hates Wednesdays.

When his alarm wakes him up, all he wants to do is turn it off and go back to sleep. He generally enjoys his job, but every Wednesday morning there’s a regional sales team meeting, and just thinking about it gives him a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.

That’s because every Wednesday and without fail, Joe sees his boss, Alex, pick on a new team member.

Sometimes she singles someone out for what she calls, ‘inexcusable behavior’. It might be something simple like forgetting to put a piece of information into the CRM, or not sending an email as quickly as she’d like. But some days she just lets it rip. She might:

  • Scream and shout

  • Curse or speak inappropriately

  • Tell people they are lazy and useless

Joe knows his colleagues are a good bunch. And he’s seen Alex be human, and even funny, at times. He doesn’t get why she has to be so mean. He’s reluctant to talk about it, but there’s no other word for it: She’s a workplace bully.

What Is Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying can involve name-calling, blaming people for things they didn’t do, belittling them, ignoring them, giving them all the worst jobs, or behaving aggressively.

If you’ve ever felt deeply uncomfortable at work because someone was picking on a team member, colleague, or even your boss, the chances are that you were witnessing workplace bullying.

Simply put, it’s deeply unpleasant for the person being bullied – and even for the people witnessing it. It’s effectively bad all around.

According to acas, workplace bullying is, "behavior from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable, including feeling: frightened, less respected or put down, made fun of or upset."

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Who Might Be Bullied At Work?

Anyone can be bullied. Anyone can be a bully. Certain types of workplace cultures can even promote bullying, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And when workplace bullying takes place, fixing it isn’t fun for anyone involved – least of all, HR. But, can HR be expected to stamp out bullying?

Well, yes, and no. At the very least, though, they can’t be expected to sort it out completely on their own.

What Is The Difference Between Bullying And Harassment?

Bullying and harassment are different in a legal sense. Bullying isn’t illegal, but when someone is bullied because they have a protected characteristic (here’s a list of protected characteristics) it becomes harassment. That is against UK law.

According to acas, people have different rights under the law depending on whether the action is defined as:

  • Bullying

  • Discrimination

  • Harassment

  • Victimization

In general, though, they all share the same general characteristics.

How Common Is Workplace Bullying In The UK?

Back in 2015, research for the solicitors Slater and Gordon revealed that more than a third (37%) of employees in the UK believe that they have been bullied at work.

An additional 21% of those surveyed said that they have seen their colleagues being bullied by others.

This well-publicized statistic may well have opened up the issue to broader scrutiny. A year later, respondents to a survey in The Guardian on bullying culture in the NHS said that “81% had experienced bullying and for almost half of them (44%), it is still ongoing.”

Since then, even if the levels of bullying haven’t changed (outside of the NHS), talking about bullying in the workplace seems to have become more socially acceptable.

Sadly, a study of 4,030 UK employees conducted by Bupa and YouGov as recently as February 2021 revealed that:

  • 78% of employees report they have experienced good mental wellbeing at work.

  • And, 36% of those surveyed claim that their employer’s understanding of mental health has improved over the last year.

  • But, 26% of employees said they have experienced bullying over the last three years.

What Are The Common Signs Of Workplace Bullying?

Bullying makes everyone (except, perhaps, the bully) feel uncomfortable. But it goes far beyond just hurting someone’s feelings.

People who have been bullied at work say they are stressed, have panic attacks, and – according to the NHS-related survey – 41% said they needed counseling or treatment after being bullied.

Those who are bullied take more time off work, contemplate leaving (or do leave) their jobs, and often suffer serious mental health problems.

What Effect Can Workplace Bullying Have On Company Culture?

In one way, bullying is like the historical canary in a coal mine. Workplace bullying can often be a sign that something is wrong: Wrong with the bully, with high workloads creating stress that results in bullying, or wrong within the organization.

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Making the bullying behaviour, or the bully ‘go away’ won’t resolve an underlying issue. A bullying culture is almost impossible to change unless change comes from the top.

Workplace bullying can often be a side-effect of an unhappy company. HR can’t be expected to solve the bigger issue of corporate culture all by themselves, although they can help improve it.

This is all to say that a toxic workplace culture filters down to every level of the business.

How Can HR Help Prevent Workplace Bullying?

Workplace bullying is, sadly, often not an isolated instance. When companies turn a blind eye to bullying, it proliferates.

In the introduction, we shared that Joe hates Wednesdays because Alex behaves like a bully. This impacts him, his team, and his work. And it is HR’s responsibility to take steps when that happens.

HR is responsible for creating and making corporate guidelines about bullying accessible to all employees and managers. But it’s not HR’s job to take sides – either for or against the accused bully.

In fact, as all HR leaders know, it’s their responsibility to do the opposite – remain neutral while trying to resolve the underlying issue.

How Should HR Manage Workplace Bullying?

While HR can’t make institutionalized bullying a thing of the past without senior leadership support, there is a lot that HR can do to help:

  • HR can (and must) have policies in place on what workplace bullying is, their stance towards it, and how to deal with it.

  • HR can encourage employees to understand what they can do to prevent bullying, or manage difficult relationships at work.

  • HR can (and should) help employees understand what to do if they feel like they’re being bullied.

For example, according to the mental health charity, Mind, employees should read the policy, try to resolve the issue informally, discuss it with someone they trust, get advice, and then raise a formal complaint – if necessary.

Why Does HR Need To Take Workplace Bullying Seriously?

Bullying is one step away from harassment and discrimination, which is covered by the Equality Act 2010 and is illegal. If employees do not feel like they are being taken seriously – and they are still being harassed after talking to their manager, HR department, or trade union rep they can, according to gov.uk, take legal action at an employment tribunal.

It’s absolutely critical to take any allegations of bullying seriously – no matter how senior or junior the employee talking about the instance might be. Give them the benefit of the doubt. And, if what they’re saying seems ridiculous, try to imagine how hard it is for them to be brave enough to talk about it in the first place.

More often than not, what appears to be an individual instance of bullying is actually the tip of an iceberg of continued behavior or of a toxic culture. Investigating allegations is the first step to stamping out bullying in the workplace.

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