Bullying in the workplace: why zero tolerance needs to be practised, not just preached

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21 Apr 2023

Stephen Bevan

Stephen Bevan, Principal Associate

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Since it's a little hard to escape the topic of workplace bullying at the moment, I thought it might be worth taking a look at why it is important to recognise and manage it effectively.

ACAS defines bullying as ‘offensive, intimidatory, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient’. It would be nice to think that exposure to the risk of bullying in modern workplaces was negligible, but this appears not to be the case.

Compared with those from other European countries, UK workers experience a relatively high amount of so-called anti-social behaviour (ASB). This can include violence, harassment and bullying. The EU average is that about 14 per cent experience ASB while just short of 20 per cent of UK workers report these behaviours at work. Slightly more women than men report ASB and, according to the European Working Conditions Survey, UK workers are more likely than those in other countries to attribute any bullying behaviour they experience to ‘autocratic’ management styles.

An important recent focus in the UK of course has been the contribution that poor mental health at work makes to high levels of sickness absence in organisations such as NHS and the civil service. Bullying and harassment from colleagues was reported by just under 19 per cent of NHS staff in 2022, for example, including over 12 per cent from managers. In the civil service, according to a large 2018 survey, 55 per cent reported that they had experienced bullying and harassment in the last year and 64 per cent had observed them both. The most recent data shows that poor mental health accounts for the highest proportion (43 per cent) of sickness absence from work in the civil service. It is also worth noting that over half of civil servants took no absence at all during 2022. For a proportion this may be an example of so-called presenteeism which often results from feeling pressurised not to take time off sick.

It is worth reminding ourselves that employers have a legal duty of care to protect the mental health of employees and to promote a positive psychosocial work environment. This could include good quality jobs, flexible working, control and autonomy at work, opportunities for development and an environment free from bullying and harassment. We know, however, that when managers feel under pressure to deliver against stretched targets there can sometimes be a temptation to adopt ‘motivational’ strategies and behaviours which can feel unfair, unreasonable or even intimidating. In addition, when setting performance targets or assessing performance, some managers can find the process of giving constructive, developmental and helpful feedback more difficult than others.

A pivotal question here can be: where does a management style where setting clear expectations of colleagues and holding them to account for their performance stray into repetitive hostile, disproportionate or undermining behaviours focused directly or indirectly at a victim by a colleague with more power or status?

Bullying behaviours can be dressed up in an elaborate concoction of performance criticisms against an individual, trivial fault-finding, statements of doubt about an individual’s commitment to a specific project or to the organisation or a set of unrealistic goals. Any minor infringement of rules will be picked up and acted upon but the same behaviours among colleagues will not. Victims may be starved of resources and given high volumes of work in an effort to cause failure or conversely, they may be stripped of responsibility, or be the subject of a reorganisation or ostracised. Bullying is rarely a single incident and tends to be an accumulation of many small incidents each of which, when taken in isolation and out of context, can seem trivial. Indeed, workplace bullying tends to fixate on trivial criticisms and false allegations of underperformance - offensive words rarely appear, although swear words may be used when there are no witnesses.

My experience as a manager has been that colleagues who are more inclined to rely on this set of bullying behaviours quickly acquire a reputation for ruthlessness, a lack of empathy and coldness. If they deliver results, then their questionable methods can sometimes be overlooked. But this, in my experience, is a fatal error and it is always best to call out this kind of behaviour with senior colleagues, no matter what short term discomfort may result.

Of course, all employers should have a clear policy to deal with bullying and harassment. You should cover the responsibilities of managers and employees reporting investigation mediation grievance and discipline. ACAS, CIPD and Mind all have good guidance material for employers. But beyond policy and procedure, senior leaders should be setting clear expectations about the standards of behaviour expected of all employees and among those with managerial responsibility in particular. With power and status comes responsibility and we know from our own research that managers can make a big difference to the climate, culture and performance of an organisation.

It shouldn't need to be said that employees are not going to be motivated or engaged by fear intimidation or humiliation. Any manager who relies on these tools to get things done probably has no place in a leadership role.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.