Bullying and harassment are wrong and harmful, but unfortunately in the workplace they also happen regularly. If you think you are being bullied the information on these pages will help you. Any kind of bullying or harassment harms individuals and their employers, and all staff should be treated with dignity and respect at work.
This page will help you if:
- You are experiencing workplace bullying
- You know someone else who is being bullied
- You are worried about accusations of bullying
- You want to help reduce or prevent bullying in the workplace
What are bullying and harassment?
These terms are often used interchangeably but there is a subtle distinction – harassment is one type of behaviour that may constitute bullying.
Harassment is clearly defined under the European Commission Code of Practice on the Protection of the Dignity of Women and Men at Work. A definition of harassment is:
“Unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient.”
Whatever we call it, all bullying is about the impact on the victim, in other words the effects of the bullying behaviour.
Bullying may be described as:
- Behaviour that the recipient finds offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting
- An abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.
Bullying or harassment is most commonly one-to-one, but it can also involve groups of people. It may be open or it may be subtle. Whatever form it takes, it is always unjustified and unwelcome to the recipient.
Definition of bullying
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD), behaviour that constitutes workplace bullying is:
“…repeated negative actions and practices that are directed at one or more workers. The behaviours are unwelcome to the victim and undertaken in circumstances where the victim has difficulty in defending themselves. The behaviours may be carried out as a deliberate act or unconsciously. These behaviours cause humiliation, offence and distress to the victim.”
This means that bullying is about the effects on the victim, whether the perpetrator intended harm or not. Examples of bullying/harassing behaviour include:
- Spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone by word or behaviour (particularly on the grounds of race, sex, disability, sexual orientation and religion or belief)
- Copying memos that are critical about someone to others who do not need to know
- Ridiculing or demeaning someone – picking on them or setting them up to fail
- Exclusion or victimisation Unfair treatment
- Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
- Unwelcome sexual advances – touching, standing too close, the display of offensive materials
- Making threats or comments about job security without foundation
- Deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism
- Preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.
Bullying and harassment can also occur in written communications, email, phone, and automatic supervision methods such as computer recording of downtime from work or the number of calls handled, if these are not applied to all workers.
The effects of bullying
Bullying and harassment can have a big emotional impact and this can affect performance, motivation and attendance at work. Because it is stressful to be bullied bullying can have a negative effect on the individual, and in extreme cases this can lead to serious psychological trauma.
Some of the effects include:
- Social isolation
- Psychological vulnerability
- Loss of confidence
- Poor self-esteem
- A sense of helplessness
- Frustration and obsessive thinking
- Compulsive behaviour (smoking, drinking)
- Psychosomatic illnesses
- In extreme cases, suicide.
The effects that employer is likely to see in an individual who is being bullied are:
- Poor performance
- Increased absenteeism
- Physical illness
- Psychological upset
- Withdrawal, poor communication.
What to do about bullying
There are two aspects to this point, personal and organisational:
- What to do if you are being bullied
- What to do if you wish to reduce the risk of bullying in your organisation.
Most organisations have procedures in place to deal with bullying once a complaint is made. This usually involves some sort of investigation following a complaint, and corrective action which might involve formal process like a grievance, or an informal one like mediation.
Even if a grievance procedure stops the bullying it will do little to improve the working relationship of the parties involved, so mediation can also follow a grievance, to restore the working relationship.
What to do if you are being bullied
This depends on the severity of the bullying behaviour and your resilience to it. You can find a complete guide to Dealing with Difficult Behaviour in my book.
You may not be able to manage the bully, but to some extent you can manage the relationship, you may be able to choose when where and how you interact with the perpetrator, and whether there are witnesses present (always useful if you decide to make a complaint).
- The first thing to remember is that confident and competent people who are self-aware do not systematically mistreat others or subject them to disrespectful behaviour. The problem is with them, not you. I realise that this alone will not change them, but when people are bullied they start to lose sight of their own good qualities, self-esteem suffers and they start to doubt themselves so remembering the above is all important is helping to maintain self-belief.
- Bullying is an organisational problem as employers have a duty of care towards employees. Inform the appropriate person (this means someone such as HR who can help you do something about the problem) for support and guidance. Do not suffer alone or assume that you are the problem.
- Keep a detailed and factual written record of all inappropriate behaviour. Be objective and accurate by describing what actually happens (behaviour) rather than analysing and speculating on intent. Keep a note also of how the behaviour affects you, both emotionally and in terms of your work related activities. You will need factual information because the other person’s story may sound highly plausible too.
- Difficult though it may be, remain appropriately assertive, keep calm and say what needs to be said quietly and coherently.
- Remember that bullying behaviour is likely to be at its worst when the perpetrator feels under pressure. If they appear to be stressed keep interaction with them to a minimum and never argue the do anything to escalate the behaviour. Choose a better time and place to discuss anything you disagree with.
- Familiarise yourself with the employer’s policy on dignity at work or bullying so you are sure of what you can do and if you decide to make a complaint.
A list like this can never address all the possible situations and no two cases are alike. If you need personal guidance you can find a local therapist or coach with experience of helping people with work related problems. Remember to consult your own HR department and don’t leave it until you are too distressed to deal with it calmly. If you would prefer to, you can consult me.
Whatever a bullying tactics, the perpetrator will be using some variation of common patterns of difficult behaviour. The book Difficult People; a Guide to Handling Difficult Behaviour, is full of the right sort of information, including detailed scripts of how to tackle the seven most common types of difficult behaviour. This book also contains over a hundred tips and hints as well as proven strategies for tackling difficult behaviours like:
The Silent Type
Difficult People; a Guide to Handling Difficult Behaviour gives detailed action plans, and the words to use to creatively work round these obstructive types of behaviour. If you want to actually hear the effective patterns of communication for dealing with these seven difficult types, vividly role-played by professional actors Martin Carroll and Georgina Betts, buy the CD ROM.
Reducing the risk of bullying at work
Bullying is a common social dynamic and therefore no organisation can safely assume that no employees are bullied. It is particularly difficult now as the requirement is often for managers to achieve the same results with fewer resources, and the line between firm-but-fair management and heavy-handedness is so easily blurred, particularly when the managers themselves are under pressure.
Assuming that ‘no complaints equals no problem’ is not the answer. Organisations can take practical steps to foster a culture where bullying is less likely to flourish:
- Create an atmosphere of openness where the topic of bullying can be discussed, and a warm and friendly environment where staff feel they have a voiceEnsure that the topic of bullying is understood with managers and staff given clear guidelines on what is expected of them
- Support this with clear and accessible procedures for responding to complaints of inappropriate behaviour
- Raise general understanding among all employees about what constitutes bullying, and what does not. This will reduce spurious claims and inappropriate use of the term bullying (my training on Bullying Awareness includes diagnostic check-list of bullying symptoms to avoid false use of the term). See my free article Reducing the Fear of Workplace Bullying
- Provide training for staff and managers to get the message across and to make sure they feel supported
- Managers must ‘walk the talk’ by modelling the respectful behaviour, backed up good management practice
- Ensure that everyone understands the organisational goals and as far as possible shares them
- Ensure that staff are regularly updated on the goals and strategies of the organisation
- Make sure you have an effective stress management policy
- Show genuine concern for quality of working life of all employees, and make sure management is visible and accessible.
- Enable conflict to be discussed openly and resolved speedily, with clear procedures and mechanisms
- Demonstrate recognition, respect and reward to generate a strong sense of loyalty to the organisation.
If you want to know more about workplace bullying then please contact Barry Winbolt. I provide workplace consultancy and advice on how to foster a healthy working environment, training on bullying tailored to the needs of the organisation, and workplace mediation for productive dispute resolution.