Bullying in the workplace creating a culture of zero tolerance

It has been estimated that on average an employee will spend one-third of their life at work. That's roughly 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime.

Spending such a huge amount of our lifetime working means that our workplace becomes integral to our way of life. It is important that we have fulfilment and joy in our working life for good health and wellbeing.

With so much investment in our working life, businesses have ‘duty of care’ to tackle workplace bullying by implementing internal anti-bullying measures to prevent incidents or support employees when they experience this behaviour. We know that creating a positive culture of openness can minimise and resolve workplace issues that can otherwise escalate into a toxic environment.

So, what is bullying?

Acas advises that there is no legal definition of bullying, but the process of bullying is described as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is either:

  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting
  • An abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone

Bullying and harassment are two different behaviours, but bullying can lead to harassment. According to the Equality Act 2010, bullying behaviour can be harassment if it relates to a particular legal protected characteristic.

How can you recognise bullying in your business?

Bullying can occur in several different ways. Some are obvious and easy to identify. Others are subtle and difficult to explain.

Acas has provided the following examples of bullying behaviour:

  • Ignoring views and opinions
  • Withholding information which can affect a worker’s performance
  • Setting unreasonable or impossible deadlines
  • Setting unmanageable workloads
  • Humiliating staff in front of others
  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities
  • Ridiculing or demeaning someone by picking on them or setting them up to fail
  • Overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position
  • Deliberately undermining a competent worker with constant criticism

The impact of changing working environments on identifying and tackling workplace bullying

 A recent study conducted by  law firm Fox & Partners said tackling workplace bullying was “no easy task”, particularly in changing work environments. The firm went on to state that there have been a record number of bullying claims under Covid-19, which meant that workplaces have struggled to address these robustly.

The changing nature of our working environments have made pre-Covid 19 strategies for identifying and dealing with problematic behaviours redundant.

For this reason, the firm warned that the virtual working environment might have led to new patterns of bullying that are more difficult to identify, such as cutting remarks being made on video calls, which are hard to address positively; deliberately leaving colleagues out of remote meetings; or using messaging apps to gossip during colleagues’ presentations.

The negative impact of bullying on business and the UK Economy

The impact of toxic working environments that don’t tackle negative behaviour do not just have a profound impact on employee mental health, but can create fear of going into work, low motivation, cause high absence levels and push employees to leave the workplace. This can all impact the organisation’s growth measures and the wider economy.

What measures can your business adopt in Anti-Bullying Week?

With Anti-Bullying Week taking place this month, what can you do as an employer to raise awareness on this very important subject matter?
We know there is no specific law against bullying, but under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, all employers must provide a safe and healthy working environment, including protection from bullying and harassment at work.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess the nature and scale of workplace risks to health and safety (this includes mental health), ensure that there are proper control measures in place to avoid these risks wherever possible and reduce them so far as is reasonably practicable where not.

Employers can support these measures by implementing a well-communicated policy and guidance that clearly states the organisation’s commitment to promoting dignity and respect at work. Employers’ responsibilities extend to work-related activities, such as work parties or outings. The policy should also encompass virtual bullying including cyber bullying and ways to tackle this.

It is also essential to educate all staff on their responsibility in creating a supportive and inclusive environment that is free from any negative behaviours that can be deemed bullying or bullish.

According to the CIPD, interpersonal conflict and uncivil behaviour, such as bullying and harassment, are remarkably common in the workplace. Sometimes they lead to legal action, which can be hugely detrimental to the organisation and its reputation. The CIPD have put together the following recommendations to support organisations in reducing bullying and workplace incivility by focusing on employees and their working lives in several key ways:

  • Be aware of the stressors faced by your staff. Those who are overloaded in their role are likely to experience more negative emotions, and subsequently display aggression and bullying.
  • Prioritise designing jobs in ways that ensure staff are clear about which actions to take to fulfil their role, and that the demands of their job are not so great that they cannot meet expectations.
  • Ensure staff feel a level of self-management and control over their working life by providing them with autonomy to decide how, when and where they work.
  • Think about who in your workplace is reporting unprofessional and abusive behaviour at work. For example, if it is mostly female employees who are raising issues, steps need to be taken to consider if there are inequality issues to address, and what can be done to prevent inappropriate attitudes or poor conduct at work.

It is also important for employers to set out their company values clearly. These are your core values that you want staff to embody and set the tone across the board. Exercise transparency when making decisions so that there is no miscommunication that can lead to wrong or harmful behaviour.

Finally, tackling bullying in the workplace can be difficult but the more we encourage people to speak out and stand up to toxic environments the more we transform our office cultures to a zero tolerance against bullying. Most importantly, anti-bullying cultures can save lives!

About the author

Sophie Azam

National Spokesperson for the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassadors, Institute of Directors

Sophie Azam is the elected IoD National Spokesperson for the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassadors across the United Kingdom. She was elected due to her passion and extensive experience in ED&I across the education and professional body sectors. Sophie has also founded her own educational establishment – IgniteQuals Limited, which was a case study for the Shinkwin Commission report for setting the ED&I Strategy as part of the Governance Arrangements, and at early inception.

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