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Bullying in the Workplace: a Problem We Cannot Ignore

by Nicholas Edwards on November 09, 2018

We often think of bullying as a childhood issue, yet it can affect us at any stage of our lives – and particularly in the workplace. According to research by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), nearly one in three people (29%) are bullied at work, with more than a third of those who reported being bullied leaving their job as a result.

To mark Anti-Bullying Week, we’re exploring the issues around workplace bullying, and what we can do to tackle it.

Bullying – what it is and why it happens

Bullying is the deliberate attempt to exert power over someone in a way that harms them physically, psychologically or emotionally. At the heart of all bullying is an abuse of power – the bully uses their power to hurt, threaten or control the victim, a process that makes the bully more powerful than the victim.

The psychology behind bullying is complex, but it often boils down to a sense of insecurity on the part of the bully, who attacks others in an attempt to mask their own low self-esteem – an extreme form of overcompensation. Bullies typically see the world in adversarial terms; in abusing others, they see an opportunity to climb higher up the perceived pecking order.

A workplace issue

Bullying in the workplace can be difficult to spot. The abusive behaviour is often subtle in nature, and can easily be dismissed as something else – a clash of personalities, banter, a particular managerial style, or the natural order of things.

As a result, it can be tempting for an organisation to imagine that it doesn’t have a bullying problem, while statistically speaking, it almost certainly does. Victims may feel ashamed to admit that they are being bullied, or may be afraid of the repercussions of reporting such behaviour. As a result, many may be putting on a brave face and suffering in silence.

The effect of workplace bullying can be hugely destructive, both from a human and a business point of view. According to the TUC report, 46% say bullying has an adverse effect on their performance, while the same proportion believe it has a negative effect on their mental health. Clearly, this is an issue we can no longer afford to ignore.

Workplace bullying can take many forms, but here are a few classic examples to look out for.

Abuse of power

All bullying is essentially about power, and this makes the world of work – where power plays, insecurity and competition are common – a potential hotbed for abuse of this kind.

In most organisations, power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Good leaders exercise this power to support and motivate others, but bad leaders can use it to threaten or intimidate their subordinates.

It is a sad fact that the wrong kind of people often find themselves in positions of power, and then use their position to display aggressive, overly critical or dictatorial behaviour. The impact on employee engagement and wellbeing can be devastating. Worse still, being bullied by a senior member of staff makes it even more difficult for victims to seek help.

Ostracism

Work is a social environment, and people naturally form social groups within teams. When groups become exclusive, or fail to accept new starters into their circle without condition, this can be psychologically damaging for those left out. In order to fit in, people may feel the need to conform to the group’s beliefs, or even compromise their own beliefs.

Ostracism is a subtle form of bullying, in that the victim is harmed in a passive way – by being ignored or left out – but the effect is damaging nonetheless. In fact, research led by the University of Ottowa found that being excluded, ignored or overlooked at work can be more damaging to our wellbeing than direct harassment.

Discrimination and prejudice

People can be discriminated against in the workplace for any number of reasons, including their age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, social background or disability. The point here is that the victim is targeted because of who they are.

Discrimination is more likely to happen in organisations that have a homogenous, rather than diverse, workforce, where anyone who doesn’t fit into the predominant demographic can be targeted. In other cases, discrimination can be a result of a toxic worldview or simple ignorance. Whatever the reason, it is unacceptable for someone to be targeted because of their nature.

While bullying itself is not illegal, unfair treatment of this kind could be considered unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Banter and gossip

As most friendship groups can attest, banter can be part of a healthy and vibrant group dynamic. But there’s a fine line between ‘just a bit of fun’ and full-on bullying, and that line often depends on the person on the receiving end, making this a bit of a grey area.

Gossip is another part of office life that can spill over from something harmless to something damaging. In most cases, people just want to catch up on news, and gossiping is a natural form of small talk. But when gossiping seeks to attack someone’s personality or damage their credibility, it becomes toxic.

So when do banter and gossip spill over into something more malicious? It all comes down to intent. Bullies want to humiliate their victims, whereas friends don’t. Regardless, jokes about people’s appearance, personality, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are always in danger of crossing a line.

Cyberbullying

With the advent of the internet and social media, the bullying landscape changed forever. Abusive behaviour can now take place anytime, anywhere, and on a wider scale than ever before.

People behave differently to one another when they are not face-to-face. This can embolden people to say things that they would never dare say in person, whether in the form of overt criticism, inappropriate jokes, corrosive gossiping, or abusive language.

Cyberbullying can have a uniquely damaging effect on the victim, for whom there is no escape from the perpetrator(s).

What can we do about workplace bullying?

Statistically speaking, every employer has a bullying problem to some degree. This means that somewhere in your organisation, someone is being abused, discriminated against, mocked, belittled or left out. The resulting damage to both mental health and productivity make this a critical business issue.

The first step to tackling any problem is awareness. Events like this week’s National Bullying Week help us all understand the scale and impact of bullying in the workplace.

Once your people are aware of the issue, they need to know what procedures are in place to clamp down on workplace bullying. Ensure that you have a well-thought-out bullying policy, and that all employees have read and understood it. This policy should outline what bullying in the workplace constitutes, and the mechanisms in place for reporting bullying, supporting victims, and disciplining perpetrators.

The best way to ensure that bullies don’t thrive in your business is to nurture a culture of diversity, inclusion and kindness. These things need should be baked in to your identity, and all employees should be made aware from the very start that you expect them to create an environment where individuals are respected and treated with dignity.

A big part of this is ensuring that you have the right kind of people in managerial positions – people with well-developed people skills, emotional intelligence, patience, and a willingness to support their team on a human level. These managers need training to ensure that they know how to spot bullying and deal with it.

There is no place for bullying in modern workplace. If not properly dealt with, it can create a toxic environment and a culture of fear. The knock on effect on mental health, employee engagement and productivity make this not only a hugely damaging human issue, but a threat to business. It’s time we addressed it.