Five ways bullying can creep into organisations


As Anti-Bullying Week draws to a close, will better awareness reduce instances of it in the workplace or just increase the number of employees who raise it? Andrea Nicholls shares her experiences on how bullying manifests itself.

Bullying is a frequent issue which many HR professionals have to tackle, costing their organisations thousands of pounds in terms of lost productivity, management time and legal costs.

Workplace bullying podcast

On this week’s XpertHR podcast, we discuss workplace bullying and the practical steps that employers can take to prevent it by creating a positive and inclusive culture. We look at the role of line managers, and the importance of having effective grievance procedures to deal with bullying if it occurs. Listen now

It can manifest itself in many ways and what may be seen as banter by some may be regarded as bullying by others and have devastating effects on those individuals.

Equally, while it is often perceived that women, particularly in male-dominated industries, are at more risk, my experience has found that women are often bullied by female bosses and men by male bosses. Equally as often, the bully is indiscriminate and both male and female staff of all ages receive the same aggressive treatment.

While genuine bullying is a frequent occurrence in the modern workplace, employees sometimes use bullying as an excuse to counter criticism of their performance. Similarly, an employee who has been used to “managing their manager” may cry bullying when a new manager, who is not prepared to accept substandard work and controlling attitude of the employee, seeks to address it.

So, anecdotally and in reality, bullying does go on and is not dealt with, but also, can be used by employees to foil attempts to manage them. The task for the HR professional is to determine into which camp the allegation of bullying lies.

Five ways bullying can manifest itself in the workplace

HR professionals need to be aware of these type of scenarios, to help  prevent them developing:

1. The blind eye

Everyone knows the person, but they are too valuable to the business and are seen by employees to “get away with it”. Their behaviour, which is often very aggressive, therefore goes unchecked – or sometimes receives an inconsequential reprimand. New recruits suffer the same behaviour as their longer-standing colleagues, and often simply leave.

2. The forthright management style

Terse emails, minor errors being regarded as major issues and headteacher-like summoning in front of colleagues to “come with me” and marched off.

3. Managers’ favourites

Excluding people from lunches; failing to copy people into emails; giving them assignments which are either mundane or have low visibility. Managers who have favourites negatively affects other employees being able to demonstrate their abilities.

4. The nature of the job

Some environments, especially high pressurised ones such as trading floors, restaurants and commission-based and sales environments, are more likely to regard aggressive behaviour or banter as the norm.

5. The midnight oil

Emails sent late at night or early in the morning make employees feel under pressure to respond immediately. A response in normal working hours will be regarded as a lack of focus and ambition.

No legal definition of bullying

What is a surprise to many employees and some HR professionals is that there is no legal definition or stand-alone claim for bullying. Although bullying is to a certain extent subjective, any claim would also require an objective assessment to establish whether or not the alleged treatment is outside the scope of acceptable behaviour.

The fact that there is no stand-alone claim for bullying means that unless the employee can demonstrate that there is some allied discrimination element, the employee’s options are severely limited.

If the employee’s grievance did not achieve the redress they hoped, then ultimately they have would have to resign and face the uncertainty of bringing a constructive wrongful dismissal claim for their notice pay and/or, if they have two years’ service, a constructive unfair dismissal claim for wider compensation. Not a position any employment lawyer would readily recommend to an employee unless the evidence was very strong.

In contrast, if the employee can demonstrate that there is a discrimination angle, then the employee can bring a claim while still employed, without the need for the two-year qualifying period.

Potentially, an employee could bring a claim under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (as amended) and under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 which are outside the scope of this article, although claims under these acts are much less frequent.

What should HR professionals do?

Often HR practitioners are first to learn of the allegation of bullying. Any allegation of bullying should be thoroughly investigated; if there is any potential discrimination angle then you should instigate an investigation even if the employee does not wish to engage in it. If there is no discrimination angle and the employee says that they do not wish to raise a grievance, then it is a judgment call as to whether to investigate or not.

However, if the employee does subsequently bring a claim, and an investigation has not been undertaken, the organisation’s ability to successfully defend the claim will be hampered.

Over the past few years, I have experienced that HR professionals are increasingly being “put in the stand” at employment tribunals. To be prepared, you need to be aware that questions will be levelled at you about what training is in place to raise awareness amongst managers in respect of bullying.

Also, a written policy, without more, is a hostage to fortune. Better not to have a policy than to have one which states that the organisation will do “x” and “y” and neither are done.

There are many genuine cases of bullying, and equally there are many cases where bullying is alleged in response to legitimate attempts by manager to address performance issues.

Anti-Bullying Week is likely to raise awareness amongst employees, rather than change how organisations deal with these complaints.

Andrea Nicholls

About Andrea Nicholls

Andrea Nicholls is a founding partner of AN Law.
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