In an era of corporate social responsibility, workplace wellness initiatives and even “chief happiness officers”, one age-old problem stubbornly refuses to pivot, evolve and, going forward, undergo a much-needed paradigm shift: workplace bullying.
Workplace bullying can seriously harm workers’ mental and physical health. Not to mention their productivity and a company’s bottom line.
Yet a quarter of employees think their organisation turns a blind eye to the issue, according to a report in January by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. It found that half of victims did not report their bullying or harassment.
It also found that the groups most likely to become victims are black and Asian employees, women, and those with a disability. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that one in four workers has been bullied in the past five years.
John Bercow was the subject of a formal complaint about workplace bullying. He denies the allegations (Photo: Jessica Talyor/UK Parliament/AFP/Getty)
Workplace bullying at the heart of government
It’s a problem that even extends to the heart of government. Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused of bullying behaviour towards staff. Former ministers and civil servants also alleged “aggressive” and “vile” conduct when she was in charge of the Department for International Development. Patel vehemently denies this.
In January, former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow was the subject of a formal complaint by former Clerk of the House Lord Lisvane. Lord Lisvane alleged he had bullied staff. Mr Bercow “categorically” denies the allegations. And Dawn Butler, a candidate for the deputy Labour leadership, suggested the denial of a peerage for the former Speaker is “a form of bullying too”.
Also last month, Kirsty Buchanan, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, was suspended amid allegations of bullying.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has been accused of bullying behaviour towards staff, which she denies (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA)
A toxic bullying culture
Meanwhile, the Movement for Reform Judaism pledged to establish a “robust and transparent” code of conduct for its religious leaders. It came in the wake of a storm about allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour against a rabbi who was subsequently promoted. He denies the allegations.
And the first annual report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services found “a toxic, bullying culture”. In one service, 46 per cent of employees said they felt bullied or harassed at work. “Disturbingly, some people we spoke to seemed to find the poor treatment of staff by other colleagues amusing,” the report said.
A TUC survey of its safety representatives last year found that they regarded bullying as the second biggest workplace issue after stress. They reported it to be worst in local and central government (cited by, respectively, 80 per cent and 71 per cent of respondents).
Workplace bullying even inspired an ITV drama in December. Mike Bartlett is the writer of Sticks and Stones. He said: “We certainly could all be good bullies, and actually probably the majority of people have been.”
Defining workplace bullying
Sir Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School, and author of Wellbeing at Work. He has been studying workplace bullying for decades. He defines the behaviour as “persistent demeaning and devaluing of an individual in the workplace”. Usually, he says, as the result of what he calls a “command-and-control” culture.
Managing somebody “by fault-finding rather than by providing them with constructive feedback” is a typical manifestation. “Normally the single biggest category of bullying is a boss to a subordinate,” he says. “But it can be between colleagues. It can be the subordinate – who doesn’t want to be managed – to their boss. It can be from a client.”
Indeed, the TUC reports that nine per cent of senior managers surveyed said they had been targeted by bullies in the previous nine months.
Sir Cary has found that victims of workplace bullying have significantly more sickness absence days than others. But the impact goes even wider. “We found something interesting that we didn’t anticipate,” he says. The mental health of staff members who witness another person being bullied at work is also affected, and they also take more sick leave.
“So we have another category, called passive or secondary bullying. You aren’t being bullied but those around you are and it’s making you feel insecure because you may feel you’re next.”
ITV’s workplace bullying drama Sticks and Stones (Photo: Tall Story Pictures)
How bullies become bosses
It is a problem that was highlighted last month by a survey of 4,200 people working in British science labs. It found that 43 per cent had been personally bullied, while 61 per cent had witnessed workplace bullying.
But just 37 per cent would feel comfortable reporting a case, according to a report by Wellcome, Britain’s largest charity. The report spoke of “a culture where bullying was tolerated as long as funding and outputs remained high”.
Sir Cary believes the main failure of organisations is people being promoted to managerial jobs “based on their technical skills, not their people skills”.
“Say you’re a great engineer and the only way you’re going to earn more money in the firm is by applying for a management job – but you’re really poor with people. I think the bulk of the bullies are people who get into a role, particularly in managing other human beings, and they’re not competent, interested or skilled to do so.”
The end of a dream job
Peter* was delighted to win his dream job in broadcasting in 2017. But after starting a new shift pattern, he began to feel personally targeted by his new boss.
“She would shout at me if I made mistakes,” he tells i. “When I answered the phone, she’d be in my other ear putting me off.
“I brought it up with my manager quite early on and they felt that I needed training. There was no mention that she might be in the wrong or an apology for what I had gone through. This went on for a good few months and eventually I was taken off the shift completely.
“I was advised by Citizens Advice to join and speak to the union representatives. But the most bizarre thing was, the person who was bullying me was the union rep.
“I’ve since left that job and turned my back on the whole business. I made sure that I sent an email to all the managers and HR. It’s a real shame that it ended the way it did, because it had been my dream to work for this company for a long time.”
Peter says his advice to others in a similar situation would be: “Do not let it kill your spirit. People who do this are usually very insecure about something or just jealous that they aren’t you. It’s not nice, but just focus on your task and make sure you are being flawless.”
‘Some people seemed to find the poor treatment of staff amusing’
What companies can do
Sir Cary believes companies must not merely have a safe reporting system for workplace bullying and then wait for complaints before taking action. He says that “wellbeing audits” can pinpoint an area of concern before anyone raises the alarm.
“Look at what’s causing people to get ill at work, and look at employees’ perception of their roles, managers and colleagues. And if you aggregate the data in an organisation, you can say: that bit over there has a bullying management style and culture, and we have to deal with it.”
Technological solutions may also offer some hope. Spot is an artificial intelligence “chatbot” that allows employees to accurately and securely document harassment. It produces a time-stamped interview that they can save just for themselves or submit to their human resources department.
Users can follow up on reports – even if they were submitted anonymously. The software, according to its co-creator, helps “turn a memory into evidence”.
Another system, Botler AI asks for an anonymous incident report. It analyses this before emailing back with related sections of the law and legal precedents that may be relevant. It also offers supportive, judgment-free responses, such as: “Sexual harassment is inexcusable, and I’m really sorry if you’ve had to deal with it. My aim is to empower you by teaching you what your rights are.”
Workplace bullying — your rights
Harassment at work is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. It can include spreading malicious rumours, unfair treatment or unfairly denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities. Acas (The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) says bullying can also include someone regularly putting you down in meetings or your team never letting you join social events.
Government advice is to see if you can sort it out informally first. Then report the bullying to your manager, human resources department or trade union representative.
If this does not work, you can make a formal complaint. Use your employer’s grievance procedure. If this fails, you can take legal action at an employment tribunal.
If trying to resolve the problem with the bully face to face, Acas advises you to explain how their behaviour makes you feel. Be firm, not aggressive. And stick to the facts. Its helpline can offer advice on 0300 123 1100.
Your employer has a legal duty to protect you. “If you have to leave your job because of severe bullying that your employer did nothing about, you might be able to claim constructive dismissal,” says Acas.
Life after workplace bullying
Such smart solutions may be grounds for optimism for the likes of Colette McKune. She was the victim of bullying at a former company about 20 years ago. But she says she has since noticed a discernible shift in workplace culture.
“I reported discrimination. It turned out to be a mistake. The discrimination quickly progressed to outright bullying. I tried to resist leaving. But after 18 months of it, I had become so disillusioned that I left the sector I worked within,” Ms McKune says.
She is now group chief executive of national social purpose organisation ForViva. “Of course, people should report it today. Thankfully, the business environment has changed since then.”
* Name changed to protect identity
Published at Tue, 25 Feb 2020 01:03:00 +0000