A lot of people think of bullying as something limited to the classroom. However, as many adults have come to realise, this is sadly not the case.
Unfortunately, bullying at work happens but there are things you can do to prevent it and things you can do to get help if you are being bullied at work.
What is bullying?
This is an unwanted behaviour from a group or an individual that makes you feel less respected, frightened, made fun of or upset. Bullying can cause both physical harm and emotional harm and includes verbal tactics, non-verbal tactics, psychological tactics, physical abuse and humiliation.
Unlike bullying that happens in school, workplace bullying is rarely aggressive. In fact, bullies in the workplace typically follow work policies and rules. The majority of workplace bullying is done by a person who has authority over another but bullies can also be peers as well as subordinates.
In the workplace, it could manifest as:
- Someone spreading false rumours
- Someone putting you down
- Not being allowed to attend training courses that others are attending
- Being given a heavier workload compared to colleagues
- Not being allowed to join in any social events
- Your authority being overruled by someone more junior than you
- Overbearing supervision
- Constant criticism
- Blocking promotions
Bullying could be a regular occurrence or a single incident and it can happen in many ways including face-to-face, in emails, on phone calls or on social media. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the work setting and could be at social events, for example. Finally, bullying might not be noticed by other people and it might not always be obvious. That said, bullying can be known about by many in an organisation who are complicit.
As well as having dire consequences for the bullied person, bullying can also lead to a decline in morale across the board and a change in the culture of the workplace.
What is the difference between bullying and harassment?
It could be said that all harassment is bullying but not all bullying is harassment. Unlike bullying, harassment is unwanted behaviour that is about any of the ‘protected characteristics’ under discrimination laws. These include:
- Gender reassignment
- Religion or beliefs
- Sexual orientation
Who are the bullies?
In terms of bully and victim profiles. Research suggests that the bully is always aware of their behaviour and will often target someone with a particular personality or someone who has a disorder or insecurity. The majority of bullies are supervisors.
A bully might well be respectful when they are talking to their own supervisors but behave entirely differently to their subordinates. The following is quite often true in these situations:
- Any mistakes the bully makes are hidden or blamed on things out of their control
- The target is kept under unrelenting stress by the bully
- The bully maintains power through fear rather than respect
- The bully’s subordinates are not told information
- The bully will blame any problems or conflicts on their target’s character flaws, poor attitude or incompetence
- The bully creates a work environment where people are compelled to work in ways they normally wouldn’t and are made to feel as though they are constantly walking on eggshells.
What can you do about bullying?
Sometimes it is possible to address the issue face-to-face with the person involved – they might not realise how their actions are affecting you. If you feel able to choose this option, you should explain how their behaviour is making you feel in a firm but not aggressive way. You also need to stick to the facts. If you don’t feel able to speak to the person (which is completely reasonable!), you could either put it in an email or ask your trade union rep to support you.
If none of these options are viable, you could talk to someone in your workplace that you do feel comfortable with. These could be your line manager, someone in HR or another manager. Keeping a record or diary of the bullying is also a good idea. You should include how the bullying incidents have made you feel, when it occurred (dates and times), evidence of the bullying (e.g. emails, screenshots of text messages or social media posts) and witnesses.
A lot of bullying happens when there are no witnesses around. However, you should still report any bullying to try to resolve the situation.
What employers have to do about bullying
All companies should have a bullying/harassment policy that describes how it should be handled. Even if your organisation doesn’t have a policy, they still have a duty to protect you by law when you are at work. If you have to resign because of bullying and your employer did nothing to help you, you could try to claim for constructive dismissal and an employment tribunal.
How to prevent bullying in the workplace
Both employees and employers have a role to play in preventing workplace bullying. With a head-on, zero-tolerance approach, it is possible to have an environment where workplace bullying never occurs. Here are some possible steps that might prevent workplace bullying:
- Recognise bullying signs (people who are withdrawn or don’t have positive working relationships)
- Keep an eye on vulnerable people
- Have an open-door policy
- Deal effectively with complaints
- Provide feedback regularly
- Create a positive culture
- Provide training to all employers and employees
While workplace bullying is not likely to go away completely given the nature of humans, there are certain things you can do to recognise it and prevent it. The most important take-away is to speak up – whether you’re the victim or a witness. Only by speaking up can things change.