The Serious Business of Bullying in the Workplace

Bullying, harassment, manipulation, verbal abuse… all universally unacceptable and inappropriate within the workplace… and yet, it still goes on all the time!

Bullying in the workplace is a quiet epidemic. From Barbara pinching Susan’s Dairylea Dunkers, or “Stinky-Frank” not being invited to social events, to the relentless humiliation of Pete, because everyone found it funny… even Pete. Workplace bullying comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s a prevalent issue with profound and far-reaching impact.

Some may ignore certain kinds of ‘bad behaviours’ as their typical workplace culture. While it’s okay to be aggressive and passionate about work, one just cannot behave with somebody else in an unacceptable manner – there’s a fine line between an aggressive workplace culture and bullying. 

Identifying the Types of Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying is not confined to physical intimidation or overt aggression. It encompasses a spectrum of behaviours, including; verbal abuse, belittlement, exclusion, and manipulation. These actions are typically repetitive, targeted, and intended to undermine the victim’s confidence and well-being.

Bullying in the workplace can manifest physically, verbally, or through digital interactions. It may involve direct confrontations or more insidious forms of manipulation and intimidation, often blurring the lines between a demanding work environment and an abusive one.

In guidance from ACAS they say that there is no legal definition of ‘bullying’ but it is described as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either; offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting, or an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.

It could be a pattern or a one off, face to face, on social media, emails, phonecalls, outside of work or in work, and it can go completely unnoticed by others. It could be among peers, or in a senior/junior relationship (and believe it or not, a senior employee can actually be bullied by a junior employee).

Being upset by someone’s behaviour doesn’t automatically make them a bully, which is where effective, impartial workplace investigations are key to identifying whether someone has behaved or acted reasonably under the circumstances.

Spotting the Signs of Bullying at Work

Recognising bullying involves observing changes in employee behaviour, such as increased absenteeism, signs of stress, or a decline in productivity. It can occur in any professional setting and may go unnoticed – especially when it involves subtle power dynamics or occurs through digital communication.

Legal Framework & Responsibilities

The legal landscape around workplace bullying demands rigorous compliance and sensitivity, particularly when tied to harassment related to protected characteristics. Understanding these legal parameters is crucial for every organisation to protect itself from lawsuits and uphold a fair workplace.

Under the Equality Act 2010, if the bullying is due to a ‘protected characteristic’ then it is classed as harassment and can lead to significant tribunal awards. Protected characteristics include; age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy.

The Impact of Bullying on the Business

The implications of workplace bullying are profound and extend beyond the immediate victim. It creates a toxic work environment characterised by fear, mistrust, and low morale. From an organisational standpoint, the repercussions are equally detrimental – high staff turnover and absenteeism are common outcomes of unchecked bullying behaviour. Fail to address workplace bullying and businesses can expect; reduced employee engagement, loss in competitiveness, reputational damage, legal repercussions and getting slammed with some hefty costs.

Cost of a Successful Workplace Bullying Claim

Any harassment claim at an employment tribunal under the Equality Act 2010 has an uncapped potential award. Time to open your chequebook. This means it’s difficult to quantify the potential financial risk, but the cost of defending a claim will be substantial (by current estimates, upwards of £20k), without including the compensation the tribunal panel may award for a successful claim.

The other risk of a bullying claim is for constructive dismissal (Unfair Dismissal). This would arise if the employee felt the bullying was so bad they have no option but to leave.  Awards for Unfair Dismissal are capped at around a year’s salary or £115,115 (April 2024).

Indirect Financial Risks

Creating a workplace culture that tolerates or fails to address such behaviour is seriously damaging. Your workforce operating in a state of fear, does not engender creativity or engagement at work, both of which will affect productivity. Attrition rates will increase. Not underestimating the power of reputational damage. Social media is a powerful anonymous tool that can expose a counter narrative to the one your marketing team is trying to carefully control.

Websites like Glassdoor, can quickly expose “toxic work environments” and amplify reputational issues – ultimately impacting the success of a business.  

Steps to Take When Bullying is Reported

When bullying is identified, it’s imperative to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation – ensuring confidentiality and fairness throughout the process. This not only helps in addressing the immediate issues but also in reinforcing a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying.

Practical Steps to Address Workplace Bullying

Employers can proactively address workplace bullying and create a bully-free environment by establishing clear policies that delineate unacceptable behaviours and their consequences – promoting open communication, and ensuring these policies are actively enforced by leadership to foster a supportive work environment.

The Roles of HR & Independent Consultants

Human Resources departments play a pivotal role in managing workplace bullying issues, from policy development to handling complaints. In complex cases, bringing in independent consultants can add an extra layer of impartiality and expertise, ensuring the investigations are handled without internal biases.

The Importance of Addressing Bullying

The well-being of all employees and the overall productivity of any organisation depend on effectively managing and preventing workplace bullying. Leaders must embody and reinforce the values set out in anti-bullying policies – ensuring these principles translate into everyday business practice.

By acknowledging the reality of workplace bullying, implementing preventive measures, and promoting a culture of respect and support, we can create healthier, more productive work environments where everyone can thrive. Let’s unmask the reality and stand together against workplace bullying.

Is your organisation equipped to handle and prevent workplace bullying?

If you suspect you have an issue relating to bullying in the workplace, we’ll help identify the root cause, propose a pragmatic approach to resolving the issue and help you embed policies to prevent issues arising again in the future. Call Personology today to discuss how we can help you?