Bullying in the workplace is rising. It comes in many forms and can affect anyone in a company. So what can a business do to tackle bullying on an organisational level? Thom Dennis, CEO of culture and leadership specialists, Serenity in Leadership, explains what bullying really means and offers potential solutions.
Bullying costs UK businesses £18 billion a year according to ACAS, and the Health and Safety Executive believe more than 17 million working days are lost each year due to work-related poor behaviours, including bullying. Reports of bullying and harassment incidents in the workplace have nearly doubled, rising from 8% up to 15% in the past three years. Bullying is an enormous and growing problem, but it is also often systemic, meaning that efforts to combat it have to be on an organisational scale to have an effect and take root.
What does bullying really mean?
Bullying comes in many forms from excessive criticism, humiliation, threats, domination, intimidation, verbal abuse, isolation and excluding behaviours. This antisocial conduct can come from anyone in the working hierarchy from top to bottom, or by a group but equally, an organisation as a whole (and its leaders in particular) can be at fault for fostering an environment where this has become acceptable and unchallenged. The impact is detrimental to the business as a whole, as well as the individuals’ mental health and quality of working life. I know this because it happened to me.
I was aggressively bullied at school and know that the experience cuts very deep and can leave psychological scars that impact your sense of self-worth. Joining the Royal Marines was a vital part of my recovery. It was a very structured environment, and in training our common objective was to finish but our competition was really with ourselves. We followed the principle that success was only achieved when every individual completed the task, so you looked after your people first and worked as a team. Something we could and should adopt in business.
What does the law say?
In the UK, while harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, there is no legislation against bullying, which continues to lead to a lack of effective policies and reporting structures in place, power imbalances and often a toxic culture that does not support individuals, bullying and harassment in the workplace. There is hope though, as The Bullying and Respect at Work Bill has recently been presented in Parliament, which aims to provide a legal definition of bullying at work and to protect those being bullied and call those who abuse their power to account. We are behind the curve of other countries. The bill is due to receive its second reading in November.
Education and commitment to change can result in success and a culture of support and inclusion, but addressing systemic bullying and harassment requires a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach, with a sustained effort from all levels of an organisation to target the problem and change the culture for the better. While we wait for the law to catchup, employers have a duty of care to keep you safe at work.
So, what are the potential solutions and ways forward?
- Policy. Implementing anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that clearly outline unacceptable behaviours, consequences and the reporting process can clarify the company’s lack of tolerance for bullying of any sort. Ensure the policies are accessible and communicated to all employees and there is clear signposting of what to do if the situation arises.
- Take complaints very seriously. Nearly 50% of respondents in one survey stated their reason for not reporting instances of bullying or harassment was because they didn’t think their complaint would be taken seriously. Companies therefore need to fully investigate any incidents without bias, and for them to be able to do this, those tasked with investigating need to be fully trained; this is not a job for an unskilled amateur.
- Notice and rebalance power disparities. HR might feel inclined to disregard instances of bullying when the perpetrator holds significant influence, for instance, the organisation might want to safeguard profits. However, in today’s society the bully’s accomplishments and metrics will not truly hold weight if they contribute to a harmful workplace atmosphere which contributes to disaffection and low morale.
- Build trust. Establish trust by initially placing belief in the accuser and provide the necessary supportive environment to give them time to tell their side of the story. Listen deeply and avoid at all costs trivialising their experience, such as “We know he is a loud guy and is a bit insensitive, but his bark is worse than his bite.” Show progress against bullying and harassment by providing regular updates to build trust and confidence.
- Allow voices to be heard. Foster an environment of emotional well-being for both the victim and observers to call out objectionable conduct. Promoting a healthy equilibrium between work and personal life helps prevent avoidable outbursts stemming from accumulated stress.
- Lead by example. Leaders should be outspoken about their plans to target bullying and harassment and hold all employees accountable. Senior leadership must not endorse such behaviour by remaining neutral. Accountability by the perpetrators is important but equally, leaders need to ensure they are doing everything possible to prevent and address instances of bullying. With only around 20% of employees trusting their organisational leadership, changes need to be made so employees can look up to and feel supported within their company.
- Anonymity. Allowing for anonymous reporting channels can help employees feel supported and more likely to come forward without fear of retaliation. Perpetrators can be held responsible, but situations can be dealt with in a way the victim feels most comfortable, to ensure they feel heard and their report is being taken seriously. What is needed is a culture of psychological safety; if this exists, bullying won’t have the air to breathe.
- Promote inclusivity. Inclusive workplaces thrive with psychological safety, and diversity is a positive outcome. Where there is real inclusion, harassment and bullying are not countenanced. Bias and prejudice are often the foundation of these antisocial behaviours but with respect and openness being at the heart of organisations, this can change.
- Continuous improvement. Combatting systemic issues is an on-going process so continuously evaluating the policies in place can ensure the most effective ones give the most support. With regular assessments, adjustments and feedback, progress can be monitored and workplace cultures can continue to grow and strengthen. This also shows a company’s desire for positive change and a willingness to listen and to develop a safe and respectful environment.
- Looking externally. Seeking guidance from external experts or consultants who specialise in workplace harassment can give that extra support to ensure the policies in place are effective. This also suggests a tough stance is being taken and the business is serious about change and is willing to be transparent to find the best help to implement the most effective solutions.