Bullying at Work

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Research shows that 83 per cent of organisations – 90 per cent in the public sector – have anti-bullying policies, so why is it still happening? Why is it still costing organisations time, money, staff turnover, absence, damaged employer brand, disturbed working relationships, low morale and commitment?

For individuals, the cost can be even higher, with lasting psychological and physical damage. We’re at an interesting stage in how bullying at work is being tackled. Over the past 20 years, organisations have moved from ‘it doesn’t happen here’, to acceptance and putting policies in place to try to stop it.

The question now is: do these policies work and, if not, why not?

Too many organisations are waiting for bad behaviour to happen, which then needs punishing. They still focus on helping the victim and isolating the bully, only defining negative, unacceptable behaviours rather than promoting positive ones.

They don’t make the link that organisational culture can itself create institutional bullying through autocratic management styles, work overload, a blame culture and tolerating (or even promoting) aggressive behaviour because it is believed to ‘get results’.

There’s a fine line between reasonable management control and bullying, and it’s a line that’s often unclear. Some managers believe they are being ‘firm’ when they are bullying. Other managers worry about tackling under-performers and then being accused of bullying.

One reason why the policies aren’t working but don’t get changed is that in dealing with bullying at work, we need to tackle the difficult complexities of personal relationships. We need to unpick the intricate and often subtle psychological aspects of bullying behaviour and its impact on individuals – the victim, witnesses and the bully – as well as the organisation itself.

To move to the next stage of tackling bullying at work, emphasis needs to be placed on:

• Defining the positive behaviours we can all expect from each other

• Everyone accepting responsibility for their behaviour and actions

• Everyone accepting responsibility for finding solutions

• ‘Top team’ behaviour – vital in reinforcing positive behaviours and creating a culture that goes beyond paying lip service to fairness.

Being clear about people’s roles, communicating consistently and effectively, understanding expectations and being given what you need to do your job – all these are also destinations on a new route forward in tackling bullying at work. Tackling a difficult and complex issue like bullying at work is about much more than having a policy in the staff handbook. It’s not just about an absence of negatives, but about actively defining and promoting positive working relationships.

The focus needs to be moved from the destructive stance of punishing and isolating bullies to a more explicit presentation of positive options. Building a culture of dignity and respect at work means creating a workplace where appropriate ways of behaving are clearly communicated, promoted and supported. It also means individuals being supported in accepting responsibility for their behaviour and actions, and working towards solutions when problems occur.

Line managers play a vital role in nipping bad behaviour and bullying in the bud before they escalate and formal procedures begin. Often HR only gets involved when relationships have already irrevocably broken down. There need to be different ways to encourage victims to feel confident about coming forward, for example, having a buddy or listener to go to, or having access to mediation.

Training is needed at every level of an organisation so no one is seen to be ‘above’ behaving like a bully and people see difficult issues being dealt with quickly, fairly and transparently. Changing entrenched behaviours which have always been seen as acceptable isn’t ever going to be easy, but it can’t be ignored when the bullying has to stop.

Imogen Haslam

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

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