Mention bullying in the workplace, and thoughts automatically turn to browbeating, domineering or malicious staff harassing their colleagues or subordinates.
But it can be much more subtle than that. The setting of unreasonable and unrealistic targets can also be construed as bullying or harassment, and employment law specialists are cautioning that unless HR professionals wake up to the problem, they could find themselves in deep water.
“It is not the intention of the perpetrator, but the deed itself and the impact this behaviour has on the recipient, which constitutes bullying or harassment,” explains Louise Mackie, employment law adviser at HR support services specialist Empire HR. “The setting of unattainable targets can, therefore, constitute bullying, and could result in an employee feeling pressurised enough to walk out of their job, later claiming constructive unfair dismissal.”
Alternatively, if an organisation sacks an employee because they aren’t achieving their targets, the employee could claim unfair dismissal, she adds. “There is also the opportunity for people to use equality legislation – relating to the perceived bullying, for example – linking a claim to age or sex discrimination law.”
Then there’s the employer’s duty of care to its employees. “Take the case of Walker v Northumberland County Council,” says Mackie. “In this situation, a social services worker had a nervous breakdown. Psychiatrists concluded that the pressure of his increasing workload was the cause and he was signed off work.
“It was decided, however, that he could still work, but not with such unrealistic targets,” Mackie continues. “The employer agreed to reduce his workload by getting another employee to share it, but this never happened, and the worker had a second breakdown. He then sued for damages, claiming the company was in breach of its duty of care, and he won.”
Since the European Union has finally outlawed workplace bullying and urged employers across Europe to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to it – and since the latest harassment legislation in the UK looks as though it will cover workplace bullying – there may be even more legislative avenues for claimants in the future.
Even if the setting of unattainable targets does not result in a claim, it is still likely to have a cost for the business, says Mackie. “Bullying costs employers more than £2bn per year in sick pay, staff turnover and lower productivity.”
Mackie insists that she’s not saying managers necessarily set higher targets deliberately. “In fact, I think the pressure often has a spiralling effect, in that they too are set harsh targets,” she explains.
She also believes the setting of unreasonable targets is on the rise. “There have been no specific studies on the issue, but research does tell us that long-hours cultures and higher workloads are more prevalent.”
Christine Pratt, chief executive of the National Bullying Helpline, agrees. “We hear of the problem of unreasonable target-setting all the time,” she says. “I spoke to someone only today who is alleging that the goalposts have been moved, targets not clearly defined, and training not provided to help him meet his goals.”
Pratt reports that this subtle form of bullying is particularly severe in the public sector. “Funding and resourcing tends to be low and stress levels tend to be high – and because of the lack of money, training doesn’t take priority in the sector,” she says.
She believes that one solution lies in HR becoming more closely involved in staff appraisals. “We know that middle and line management often have difficulties with appraisals, in that they are not well-trained enough to hold the meetings and thereby identify where issues such as unattainable target-setting are a problem,” Pratt explains. “It would help if HR organised appropriate training for such managers, and if HR professionals themselves had a more supportive and hands-on, rather than merely administrative, role in appraisal meetings.”
Pratt adds that HR could benefit from carefully monitoring absence, stress levels and turnover of employees. “If these three areas are meticulously analysed, they can flag up whether targets are perceived to be unfair,” she says.
Revealing exit interviews
Cathy Monaghan, HR consultant at employment consultancy PES, believes exit interviews can be particularly useful in detecting the problem. “In looking at why someone is leaving, HR professionals need to ensure that the person feels able to be completely honest – perhaps even allowing employees to talk ‘off the record’,” she says.
She points to other potential solutions. “I think employee satisfaction surveys – again anonymous – can be helpful, as can having a confidential person available to whom employees can talk if they think goal-setting is a problem,” she says.
The setting of unreasonable targets isn’t always top-down, points out Jo Causon, director of marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI).
“The traditional view is that goal-setting comes from superiors,” she says. “But in fact, it can come from colleagues – particularly in a culture with an emphasis on teamworking – or even from customers and clients.”
Causon advocates bullying awareness training for all staff. “This is, in my opinion, the only way that you can get a better understanding among all employees of what is and isn’t acceptable,” she says.
“This is particularly important in light of the CMI’s latest research, which found that 60% of managers say bullying is increasingly common.”
Linked to this must be a clear bullying policy, adds Causon. “Our research also found that 46% of organisations reported having no such policy, or even a plan to develop one.
“This is a worry when it comes to obvious forms of bullying, and even more so when it comes to more subtle forms that can be well disguised, especially in competitive or tough environments,” she adds.
The difficulty in organisations in the City, for instance, is that everyone is “on target”, says Richard Fox, head of the employment team at law firm Kingsley Napley.
“It means there can be a very fine line between bullying and simply being part of the culture,” he says. “Since any court would consider whether an employee had the tools to meet the targets they were set, my suggestion to HR is to ensure that people always have the right training to do their job.”
Targets should be…
Specific – Employees should fully understand what the organisation expects of them.
Measurable – Employees need to be able to see when a task is achieved. It can help to have smaller goals that can be ticked off along the way, rather than one long-term aim.
Achievable – Employees need the right tools to achieve their targets.
Realistic – If you ask a sales executive, for instance, to double their target from the previous month, having introduced no changes that would make this possible, it would be unrealistic.
Flexible – If employees are unable to achieve one goal, it can have a domino effect on other targets, so there should be flexibility with time frames.
Is it really bullying?
Although Keith Bedingham, chairman of change measurement company Verax, agrees that real bullying must be tackled, he cautions that there are people for whom false accusations of bullying are a way to try to make money in the courts.
“Then there are those who have a victim mentality, who may just want a shoulder to cry on,” he says.
“A third group is employees who are convinced they are being bullied, but who, in fact, are not. In these cases, it’s often simply a case of a directive, perhaps slightly overbearing, manager working with someone who prefers a more consensual, quieter approach.”
Employers must be able to separate real bullying from false perceptions or accusations, says Bedingham.
“The best way to achieve this is to help individuals to better understand their behaviours and intentions and how they may be interpreted by others.
“A starting point for this is to use diagnostic tools that look at individual attitudes and motivations, and to work these into a coaching or training session.”