Bullying in the workplace has become more widely recognised as a real problem. We would like to think that management by fear – either by individuals or organisations – was certainly not something associated with the caring professions.
But most managers at some stage in their career are likely to come across bullying – and may even be seen as a bully themselves. What is thought of as “strong leadership” may be perceived as plain old bullying. In these cases it is important that the management team is not seen to close ranks but starts a process to deal with it.
Managers have two main roles: prevention and cure. This means creating a workplace free of fear, and effectively dealing with any incidents of bullying.
Leadership by example is crucial. Managers will need to be seen to make it clear that bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. In tandem with this, tackle issues that could add to a culture of fear. It can be very appealing to a manager to pretend certain things aren’t happening and sweep them under the carpet.
So what preventive measures can you begin with? First, look at the written policy. Many workplaces have anti-bullying policies which are sometimes buried within general policies about acceptable workplace behaviour. Is it any good, is it clear, can it be improved? Get your team to look at it and suggest ideas.
Adorn your noticeboards with posters (as well as policy documents) proclaiming which behaviours are unacceptable. New staff can be told of the anti-bullying policy and related procedures as part of their induction. It can be included as a regular item on supervision agendas.
Often, teams draw up their own personal statement of purpose or philosophy based on their organisation’s policies. This promotes a sense of ownership and fosters team spirit and togetherness. A statement on anti-bullying can serve two purposes: it delivers a warning to those tempted to try such tactics and it makes it easier to challenge any such perceived behaviour.
However, even with good policies and a positive culture, incidences of bullying can still happen, and you need to be prepared to act. People may still be afraid to speak out, so you should be aware of some of the tell-tale signs that something may be wrong among your staff.
For example, higher than usual employee turnover, above-average absence rates, or staff whose productivity decreases for no apparent reason might indicate that bullying is happening.
Formal accusations of bullying tend to occur infrequently, and as such most managers will not be familiar with how to manage them. This can be disastrous in itself, as the policies usually specify the agreed steps to follow from the outset. If you act on your own judgement (which is highly tempting) to sort things out rather than following the set procedure, it could more than double the work involved, much of which may be damage-limitation of your own inappropriate actions rather than getting the primary issue sorted.
Accusations of bullying, as with sexism and racism, also tend to generate high emotions when news filters out in the workplace. You can guarantee that everyone will have an opinion on it, with much whispering and animated muttering in dark corners. So you need to deal with things coolly and openly.
Bullying can be something of a secret behaviour – it is possible that no one else has witnessed it or experienced it from the alleged perpetrator, which makes dealing with it that much harder.
If bullying is alleged, it is important to separate out the person complaining from the substance of the complaint. While their character, background, and other irrelevant details will be the subject of office gossip, it should not form any part of the investigative process. Under no circumstances should you fall into prejudicial thinking that certain groups are less likely to bully (women, disabled workers, black and ethnic minority staff, and so on) – stick to the facts at all times.
Absolute clarity about the incident, its location, its frequency, its antecedents, corroborating evidence, and so on are all crucial to ensure a fair process for both the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.
It is also important to recognise the difficulty a person who feels intimidated at work will have in coming forward. People subjected to bullying behaviour often lose the confidence to speak up – or fear the consequences for their career of having the bully dealt with.
Or, worse still, they fear that they will not be believed and be branded the office troublemaker. And when you add in all the conflicting feelings of fear, anger, guilt and distrust, it’s essential that any employee alleging bullying is not ignored but is treated sensitively, fairly and with respect.
John Belcher is chief executive, Anchor Trust; Sheena Doyle is an independent social care consultant; and Kathryn Stone is director, Voice UK.
- Fear stimulates performance.
- The bully is just as much a victim so don’t use formal discipline procedures.
- Good staff can deal with bullying.
- Give the bully a taste of their own medicine.
- It’s all political correctness anyway.
- The bully will be popular with some people, and it all seems like harmless fun. Be prepared to be unpopular by not colluding.
- Ensure your disciplinary process highlights bullying as a disciplinary offence.
- Deal with small instances of inappropriate communication or behaviour early – don’t wait for it to escalate.
- Be objective, fair and measured.
1 Neil Thompson, Tackling Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace, Pepar Publications, 2000 (also available as a training pack): www.pepar.co.uk
2 Tim Field, Bully in Sight: How to predict, resist, challenge and combat workplace bullying,Success Unlimited, 1996: www.successunlimited.co.uk
3 Angela Ishmael, Harassment Bullying and Violence at Work: A practical guide to combating employee abuse, The Industrial Society (now the Work Foundation), 1997: for more go to www.theworkfoundation.co.uk
4 P Gilbert and Neil Thompson, Supervision and Leadership Skills: A training resource pack, Learning Curve Publishing, 2002: available from
5 Also visit www.humansolutions.org.uk for an informative section on bullying and harassment in the workplace.