Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” goes the childhood rhyme.  Really?  Let’s not kid ourselves.  Words are powerful and can hurt just as much as the childhood alternative of a wrist-burn behind the bike sheds.

But bullying is not just an issue in the playground. It is also a serious problem in Britain’s workplaces.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) says in its recent consultation paper (http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/e/b/Seeking-better-solutions-tackling-bullying-and-ill-treatment-in-Britains-workplaces.pdf) that in 1998, managers in 7% of workplaces reported grievances raised concerning bullying or harassment issues – this rose to 8% in 2004, and to 11% in 2011. Furthermore, data on those calling the Acas helpline about bullying in the workplace shows a steady demand for advice (around 20,000 calls per year or, put differently, nearly 80 every working day).

All that sounds pretty grim but in fact it is not clear how far this indicates that bullying itself is actually on the rise. It may be down to a shift in what is now considered acceptable behaviour in the workplace (“banter” and all that).  Alternatively, employees who have previously feared for their re-employment prospects due to economic conditions are slowly becoming more willing to speak out as the job market improves.  Nevertheless, it is clear that the evidence points to a significant problem in Britain’s workplaces, and one which businesses need to better understand and address.

The most obvious problem in preventing bullying is the absence of any legal definition of it, so it becomes hard to point definitively to what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. It is also very context-specific, in that conduct which might cause considerable distress in some gentler working environments (“I do beg your pardon, Vicar”) might go unnoticed in, for example, a dockyard.  In the same way, people possess different perspectives on the same issue, so that what one sees as bullying might seem to the other as no more than firm (and warranted) management, and also differing levels of personal resilience.  Perhaps that explains the absence of a common definition!  Nonetheless, while the boundaries of bullying may be blurred, some behaviours clearly fall within them:

  • Consistently undervaluing an employee’s performance in work;
  • Persistently badgering or humiliating employees;
  • Spreading gossip and slander;
  • Regularly ignoring or excluding employees from work activities;
  • Overburdening employees with work or setting unattainable deadlines;
  • Regularly making the same person the butt of jokes; and
  • Shouting and verbal and/or physical abuse or “space invasion”.

Employees on the receiving end of this negative behaviour can experience both psychological and physical issues. A drip feed of negativity each day can cause anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and skin rashes, amongst other symptoms of ill health.  Some of those 20,000 callers to Acas said they had even considered taking their own lives because of workplace bullying.  It really is a serious issue.

Employers who fail to tackle bullying can pay a price – literally. The cost to the economy of bullying in lost time, lost incentive and reduced work output and quality of service is estimated to be almost £18billion.  And that excludes the risk of legal action.  There is no free-standing claim for bullying but it takes little to extrapolate such behaviours into discrimination or harassment, to constructive dismissal or, where especially serious, into personal injury claims.  And some of the publicity from such claims can obviously be very unattractive.  So what should employers do about workplace bullying?

  1. Offer training. Or rather, compel training.   Not only might this limit the conduct in the first place but it will also strengthen the employer’s hand against anyone who doesn’t heed those messages.
  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Collate information from employees from formal and informal complaints, diagnostic surveys and confidential ‘consequence free’ exit interviews to help identify patterns and enable targeted action on contributory factors such as management practices, workloads or change.
  3. Foster good workplace relations. Avoid an overtly autocratic management style. Deal with problem behaviour promptly, appropriately and inclusively to set a good example. The business must make it clear that bullying is unacceptable (and then respect that message!).
  4. Explore informal resolution first. Encourage open conversation in teams and between individuals as well as confidential support to reassure employees that the matters they raise will be treated in confidence. Encourage the use of internal or external mediation (often better phrased as “facilitation” at the initial stages) to focus on what it will take to make the relationship work going forwards rather than who did what to whom in the past.
  5. Implement formal procedures where early resolution doesn’t work. Businesses, small and large, should consider framing a Bullying in the Workplace policy which sets out examples of behaviour which will not be tolerated, a statement that it may be treated as a disciplinary offence and investigation procedures, etc.
  6. Lastly, don’t turn a blind eye. Is your organisation immune from workplace bullying problems? According to the statistics, probably not. We’re all at risk of suffering from the ‘drip-drip-drip’ of a co-worker’s abuse.