While last week’s National Ban Bullying at Work Day garnered a great deal of press coverage, the organiser of the initiative says many employers are turning a blind eye to the issue, despite the extent of the problem.
In the 12 years since she founded anti-workplace bullying charity, the Andrea Adams Trust, Lyn Witheridge has been aware of seven suicides and countless nervous breakdowns caused by bullying at work. On a busy day, her organisation takes up to 70 calls on its helpline.
“Awareness and recognition of what constitutes bullying is absolutely essential if the problem is to be challenged,” she says.
Witheridge defines bullying as “an abuse of power or position” and says it is just as likely to occur between colleagues of equal standing as it is between managers and their staff.
But this abuse can take many subtle forms.
The blocking of job opportunities, exclusion from meetings, overbearing levels of supervision and the spreading of malicious rumours are actions on the dark-side of office politics, which, although not traditionally regarded as bullying, result in employees feeling undermined and victimised.
If employers are serious about confronting these issues, they must work at creating a culture where their employees feel comfortable reporting them, according to Bruce Haines, chief executive of leading London-based advertising agency Leo Burnett.
Haines is a patron of the Andrea Adams Trust and he feels that talking about workplace bullying is taboo in many organisations, which results in valued workers leaving or under-performing.
“It’s something that occurs in every company and it is bad business practice not to deal with it,” he says.
Haines’ approach has been to bring the issue out into the open by speaking about it at meetings and circulating company-wide e-mails stating what behaviour the organisation deems unacceptable.
Alongside this, employees have been made aware that any complaints of this nature will be treated with sympathy and confidentiality by HR, and a formal procedure on how bullying cases should be treated has been drawn up.
But doesn’t the subjective nature of what constitutes bullying make identifying borderline cases problematic? What to one person may be strong management, another may find intimidating.
For Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, trying to pin down a watertight definition of bullying is pointless. “If an employee perceives they are being bullied, then there’s problem,” he says.
Emmott believes early identification and intervention is essential. Most organisations, he says, only start dealing with an issue once a victim starts taking days off work, breaks down in tears or tenders their resignation – by which time the damage has been done.
“Get in there quick, talk to both parties and establish what is going on,” he says. Companies should organise a comprehensive awareness training programme and put an onus on senior managers to set an example, he adds.
Witheridge believes line managers also have an important role to play in dealing with bullying on an informal level, before an official complaint is made.
In the event that two employees have irreconcilable differences and one has to be transferred to a different department or location, she urges employers to make a statement of intent by moving the bully.
“But unfortunately, more often than not, it is the victim who is moved away,” she says.