I’ve previously written about cultures of corporate kindness, the importance of taking care of employees and, more recently, the ways in which a hostile working environment can harm your business. In keeping with this theme, I want to examine the issue of workplace bullying and how to prevent it.
If no one in your company has complained about workplace bullying, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. More than half of employees (57 percent) admit that they never report the problem and of those who do, more than half say that nothing was done about it.
The truth is that most organisations remain ineffective or unmotivated to prevent or confront workplace bullying and wouldn’t know where to start even if they wanted to.
Some people will attempt to defend bullying as tough management, arguing that you have to bully people to motivate them to get the job done. You don’t. People respond to positive leadership, encouragement and motivation. They do not respond to fear or intimidation, not in a way that could be deemed productive or healthy.
Too many employers have misconceptions about workplace bullying. They dismiss it as something that isn’t altogether important or harmful. Likewise, employees mistake being yelled at, belittled or having unreasonable demands made of them as having a demanding boss. It’s not. It’s bullying. Let’s be clear about this, bullying is aggression expressed psychologically and emotionally. It is a form of violence and it is unacceptable.
A culture of workplace bullying
Psychology Today referred to workplace bullying as a “silent epidemic”. It’s something most employers don’t want to deal with it, they assume that the problem will take care of itself if left alone. Of course, that’s not the case. Problems that are unresolved tend to manifest. Left to its own devices, workplace bullying can quickly become a culture with the potential to spread and infect all areas of the organisation. The danger is that left unchecked, this culture becomes normalised.
One of the most common forms of workplace bullying culture is when employees are rewarded for stepping on others in to climb the ladder. Employees quickly learn that the way to succeed is by exploiting others, stealing their work, taking credit for work they didn’t do and slandering anyone who gets in their way.
Corporate culture starts in the boardroom. When bullying happens at the highest level it could create a negative domino effect with the bullying cascading downward. Senior managers bullied by the CEO may offload their aggression to middle management who pass it down to their subordinates and so on and so forth.
Social interactions and relationships are of great importance to the function of the organisational structure and in pursuing goals. The emotional consequences of bullying put an organisation at risk of losing victimised employees. A culture of bullying also leads to high sickness rates, low morale and poor productivity. Allowed to thrive, a culture of bullying can create tense conflicts and malicious acts that pop up all over the company.
If companies want to end workplace bullying, they need to stop this culture of rewarding bosses who intimidate and control those underneath them. A culture of workplace bullying is the responsibility of the employer, not the line manager. Any cultural changes within an organisation always have to come from the top down.
Bullying, harassment and unwanted conduct that creates a hostile working environment that prevents you from doing your job all tend to overlap and intertwine but it is important to know what the differences are.
Bullying is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended and can include: spreading malicious rumours, unfair treatment, picking on someone, regularly undermining a competent worker or denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities.
For bullying to be unlawful it has to qualify as harassment which requires unwanted behaviour related to a protected characteristic including age, sex, disability, gender, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or sexual orientation.
If bullying does not qualify as harassment according to the strict letter of the law, then you may still be able to resign and bring a constructive dismissal claim.
Constructive dismissal is when you’re forced to leave your job against your will because your employer’s behaviour or conduct creates a hostile working environment that is intimidating, hostile or offensive, which could all be construed as a form of bullying.
It can include: refusing to pay your salary, unjustified demotion, forcing you to accept unreasonable changes to your job description or duties, undermining you with profanity in front of other employees etc. With constructive dismissal, your employer must be in breach of their duty of trust and confidence which can be one act of gross misconduct or, more likely, a series of incidents.
The problem becomes significant and pervasive if it continues over time and if it is not investigated and addressed effectively enough by the organisation to make the behaviour stop. The hostile behaviour, actions, or communication must be severe enough to seriously disrupt the employee’s ability to work.
Employment law varies from country to country but generally, in the west, the parameters that govern bullying, harassment and constructive dismissal are broadly the same.
Mitigating the risk
Tackling workplace bullying is a joint responsibility of the organisation and individuals working within it. The employer’s first responsibility is to create a robust anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy. This policy should articulate the organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work. This mitigates the risk of bullying and harassment in the workplace, ensures legal compliance and cultivates a healthy working environment for staff to operate in.
The policy should document the reason for the policy, give guidance governing what constitutes harassment, discrimination, assault, violence, bullying and treatment of minorities etc. It should also clearly state that non-compliance will not be tolerated and what the consequences of any non-compliance are.
To be effective, employees need to know that they are protected if they make a complaint. Thus the policy needs to state that confidentiality is guaranteed. It should also set out the company’s complaints and grievance procedure as well as providing directions on what remedies and support are available to employees who feel that they are being bullied or harassed.
The policy should be monitored and regularly reviewed for effectiveness. Log any complaints detailing how and why they occurred, who was involved, how was the complaint handled and what the outcome was.
In some high profile cases, employers have still been held liable even when they had such a policy in place. This is because simply having the policy is not enough, it also needs to be properly communicated to the entire workforce.
Managers and supervisors should be rigorously trained on equal opportunities, bullying, harassment and hostile working environment issues with records of any such training stored and filed.
Workplace bullying often starts small and escalates. The early warning signs are small actions such as eye rolling, sneering or demeaning a colleague. While this may seem trivial, it is still unprofessional and staff trained with a workplace code of conduct will address these problems before they flare up into something more troublesome.
I have already mentioned that corporate culture flows from the top down, this is why it is imperative that the policy applies to everyone regardless of their seniority. Just recently a video of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick emerged showing him abusing one of his own drivers. There cannot be any exceptions to an anti-bullying policy, it has to extend to everyone, including the CEO.
Individuals should play their part in making the organisation’s policy a reality by being prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour and take action if they observe or have evidence that someone is being harassed.
People who witness bullying but do nothing about it act as enablers and will take up with the harassers as a form of self-preservation, this only compounds the problem. It can be scary for employees to speak out against bullies which is why it is important that the organisation empowers them to do so by guaranteeing their protection when they do.
What to do when bullying or harassment occurs
If an employee makes a complaint regarding bullying or harassment, it may be appropriate to suspend the alleged bully pending investigation. The suspension should be with pay as a suspension without pay would be a penalty of itself.
Following the investigation, if there is a case to answer, a disciplinary hearing should take place with sanctions of a written warning or dismissal imposed where necessary.
If you don’t have any existing parameters in place to deal with workplace bullying, erecting them can seem like a daunting task. But so long as you have a robust policy in place and it is properly communicated to your workforce, you’re already laying the foundations for creating a positive and productive environment for your business and your staff.