Six steps to tackling bullying in your workplace


Six steps to tackling bullying in your workplace

Bullying appears to be a serious problem in our workplaces. Data from The TCM Group suggests that around 75% of workplace grievances involve an allegation, or allegations, of bullying and the situation appears to be getting worse.

More and more organisations are recognising that bullying is a serious issue, often through issues being raised in internal audits or staff satisfaction surveys.

One recent high-profile example is the London Ambulance Service. An investigation found that there was a bullying and harassment culture embedded in the organisation and identified numerous examples of verbal and physical abuse and harassment of staff.

The organisation’s Chief Executive, Dr Fionna Moore, publicly apologised for the problems, saying

“from today, we will no longer tolerate bullying or harassment of any kind, at any level.”

So why is there so much bullying, what is going so wrong? There are two key factors at play here:

The first reason is the impact of the recession in the workplace. With things so tough in the economy since the financial crisis began 7 years ago, people have been keeping their heads down at work. Staying busy, trying not to rock the boat or cause any problems. Many people have felt fearful they could lose their jobs. That has meant worries about bullying and conflict being suppressed as other worries took priority.

As the economy recovers though, people are more willing to express how they feel about their work situation and more likely to put their needs forward. We are starting to see more complaints being made again.

The second reason there appears to be so much bullying is the fact that it has become something of a catch-all term used for all workplace conflict.

Employees sometimes have no other way of describing their experience. Often when people experience problems at work they look to the definition of bullying in the workplace to frame their experience.  

Many times, when we are brought in to an organisation to look at a bullying situation, when we talk to those bringing the complaint, what we actually discover is a problem caused by loss of esteem or loss of confidence or even loss of faith in a manager. A breakdown in the psychological contract between the manager and the employee. This leads to a breakdown in trust. It is the breakdown of trust that is often codified as bullying.

Bullying is a term that is used to describe: 

  • An unresolved conflict
  • Distress and fear
  • Loss of control
  • Feelings of insecurity, isolation or vulnerability
  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
  • A loss of trust

All these issues are important to address but they are not bullying as we have traditionally understood the term. Complex issues are being papered over by the term bullying. In that sense, the term bullying is a problem.

the term bullying itself is doing more harm than it is doing good. It conjures up images of an ogre, a villain and a sociopathic monster. This is simply not the reality of most workplaces. Anti bullying initiatives need to be far more sophisticated than simply saying that bullying won’t be tolerated.

While bullying is a very serious issue, the widespread use of the term can be a real problem. It apportions clear blame and tends to single out one person as the problem – the bully. For managers, being labelled a bully can be a career-defining moment. It makes everyone very fearful once the term is mentioned.

It is important to say at this point that, of course, malicious, deliberate bullying does happen. When it does it needs to be dealt with quickly and decisively. Managers need to have the right skills to set up and carry out investigations when necessary. They need to be objective and able to carry out factual assessments. But we also need to give employees and managers the skills to identify when the problem might be more subtle.

Here are some tips for identifying and addressing bullying and conflict in your organisation.

1. Gather evidence of people’s experience

Whether it is staff surveys, regular meetings, special summits, or other methods, gather data on what problems people are facing and what the root causes might be. This kind of proactive ‘problem seeking’ requires courage from an organisation but will really help tackle issues early on. Being proactive is an enormous advantage. TCM runs bullying & conflict audits which perform exactly this function.

2. Take a hard look at your organisation’s grievance procedure

Is your conflict resolution framework perpetuating a right/wrong, defend/attack, win/lose approach to problems in the workplace? The traditional approach to handling grievances is based on a judicial-style investigation of who is at fault. This can often increase rifts in the workplace and rarely uncovers the root cause or an issue. It rarely, if ever resoles the underlying issues. Reframing grievance procedures to include mediation and other restorative approaches can shift the focus to collaboration and collective problem solving when problems arise.

Please contact if you would like a free copy of the TCM Model Resolution Policy. This offers a timely alternative to current grievance and bullying and harassment polices

 3. Remember, bullying can be upwards as wells as downwards

Often we perceive bullying as a top-down phenomenon; managers treating their employees unfairly. This does happen, of course, but bullying can be up, down, sideways and diagonal. It is also important to bear in mind that in some cases bullying allegations may themselves be an example of bullying.

 4. Bring the ‘holy trinity’ together to develop early warning systems

By bringing on board the ‘holy trinity’ of stakeholders – HR, management and unions you can maximise your chances of catching problems early. Joint initiatives encouraging early reporting of issues really help resolve difficulties quickly. Initiatives can be intranet pages, printed materials, special meetings – anything that has the support of everyone in the organisation and will help embed the culture. Meet regularly to assess the effectiveness of existing systems and look at updating them as needed.

 5. Offer career long training and support

Training and support needs to be available for managers on an ongoing basis. Not just ‘sheep dip’ training – everyone going on a one day course before being left to fend for themselves. From the moment managers are appointed, dealing with conflict needs to be part of their core competencies so that they understand what is expected of them and can access the support they need. Emotional intelligence and compassion should be recognised as key managerial skills. Managers who don’t feel they will be supported when dealing with conflict are more likely to ignore it or even suppress it.

 6. Constant review

As with any good practice, keep conflict management policies under constant review. This isn’t something that can be set up and forgotten about. There needs to be an active monitoring of framework effectiveness rather than a passive approach which waits until problems arise.

Finally it is important to remember that conflict exists in every single organisation. It is part of life and part of working life. Don’t be afraid to talk about it and promote the systems you have in place to deal with it. Talking about how you deal with bullying, harassment and conflict in general doesn’t make you look like a bad employer struggling with a problem, it makes you look like a good one, dealing with a difficult fact of life.

What do you think?

  •  Have you ever experienced bullying at work – how did your organisation respond?
  • Do you agree that mediation offers an effective remedy to workplace disputes?
  • Are you an HR professional who has introduced a bullying initiative – what challenges did you face and what impact did it have?

 Please share this article with others. Please also leave your comments and thoughts in the comments area of this post and I will gladly respond. 

Comment ( 1 )

  • Cathe gaskell

    Hi David,

    one of the issues I have seen is a reluctance for organisations to believe at times (including HR staff) that their staff are feeling bullied, their experiences at times can be discredited by managers hoping to down play it down and they raise the bar as to proof, when bullying is a very personal experience and should not be treated in the same way for example as a clinical error where specific hard evidence is involved.

    Bullying by intimidation and ridicule and hostility can be passed off as ” firm management of a difficult team” and the importance of listening to staff is being lost in the chase for process within Bullying and Harassment investigations. I think in the future we will have to see Bullying and associated behaviours in a different light, as a sign of conflict and or stress within teams , managers or organisations, and not as it is now seen as either existing only in the minds of staff therefore fiction or that an evil manager is imposing there will on reluctant staff, in reality it is often very different and a mixture of a number of factors such as poor communication skills / ineffective leadership or an organisation or service under acute stress and staff reacting to stringent deadlines.

    I would like to see the early recognition of warning signs within teams, flagging up bullying behaviours and then interventions such as mediation brought into play to quickly correct conflict within relationships before it turns into a protracted disciplinary process.

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