Workplace bullying: Top tips for tackling the problem

Top tips for tackling workplace bullying

  • Create a working environment where concerns can be raised without fear of reprisal: A genuine commitment from management that all workers should be treated with dignity and respect, implemented through up-to-date policies and relevant training.
  • Promote responsible management practices: Ensure all workers have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, including the manager’s right to manage and the worker’s right to receive relevant training and guidance.
  • Foster a common understanding of appropriate workplace behaviour: Induction and training for all workers on appropriate workplace behaviour with a clear indication of what is unacceptable and the consequences.
  • Raise managers’ confidence: Equip managers with the skills to deal with situations of inappropriate workplace behaviour as soon as possible, including training in how issues can be resolved informally, and how to minimise disruption caused by the formal process.
  • Focus on the behaviour not the person: Equip all workers with the skills to raise issues in a non emotive and depersonalised manner, avoiding generalised terms and personal attacks.

In my work with organisations to repair the damage caused by allegations of workplace bullying, I have been struck by how easily these intensely disruptive situations could have been avoided if tackled earlier. I now strongly believe that the term ‘workplace bully’ helps to fuel these unfortunate environments.

‘I’m bullied at work’ is a common statement, with the potential to create low morale, high levels of anxiety, increased absence, poor performance, claims of stress and unfairness, and fear of reprisal, not to mention the impact and cost of a tribunal.

To minimise disruption, it is crucial that the language used to describe workplace situations is clear and consistent. The term ‘bully’ is enormously unhelpful in this context, especially in the current economic climate. With raised anxiety levels, workers are much less likely to focus on building or maintaining healthy workplace relationships.

Using this term to describe inappropriate behaviour such as poor management, unwanted personal comments and jokes that go too far, can cause situations to rapidly escalate into a total breakdown of the workplace relationship. Once an allegation of bullying has been made, workers will immediately adopt unhelpful and defensive positions, with less room for rebuilding the relationship.

For example, here is a recent scenario: “He was absolutely devastated when one of the team cited his bullying as the reason she had been off with stress. He was so scared of being a bully he stopped talking to her directly and only communicated by e-mail. Then she complained about the tone of the e-mails.”


‘Bully’ is a label that workers strive to avoid. A natural instinct is to deny such an allegation, regardless of the real nature of the complaint and behaviour involved; it is highly unlikely someone will agree and say: “Yes, I’m a bully.” Consequently, the term ‘bully’ acts as a barrier to recognising and resolving the actual behaviour causing offence. For this reason, workers should be encouraged to discuss the behaviour(s) that are unwanted with the underlying aim of rebuilding the working relationship.

There is a real need to raise confidence levels, especially with managers, to deal with these issues early and informally to reduce the burden of formal grievances. Two statements highlight this problem:

  • “My managers do not know what the right thing to do is and they do nothing because they are scared of doing it wrong.”
  • “Ultimately the company has dealt with this really badly. If I’d had a competent manager at the start of this whole thing, it would not have got out of hand.”

Preventative approach

While the emphasis on dispute resolution in the workplace has now turned to mediation, it is important that employers also adopt a preventative approach to avoid high costs and unnecessary disruption. This involves developing all workers to be able to raise concerns early and informally.

Central to the success of this is ensuring the focus remains on the behaviour that is unacceptable, avoiding personal attacks and generalised terms such as ‘workplace bully’

Coreen Nugent has recently produced a toolkit entitled ‘Recognising and Resolving Inappropriate Workplace Behaviour’. For more details, e-mail:

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