Bullying may feel like a term from a forgotten era for many of us, something we associate with playground antics or the big kids at the back of the school bus. Yet, new research reveals that workplace bullying affects an estimated 15% of the UK workforce – that’s about 4 million people .
Whilst many of us have a good idea of the not-so-subtle art of the playground bully (pulling pigtails, calling names, or bulldozing their way through friends) it can be more difficult to decipher in a workplace setting.
What is bullying?
Bullying is an action intended to offend or intimate another person. In the workplace bullying can look like; overloading someone with work, starting a malicious rumour about them, or consistently undermining a person. Whilst bullying is not technically illegal, if the reason the person is being bullied relates to a protected characteristic (such as their sex, ethnicity or religion) it constitutes harassment and is illegal in the UK.
It goes without saying that bullying can have a significant impact on our wellbeing. It can cause a myriad of upsets in everything, from our digestion to our peace of mind and increases the likelihood of taking time off to recover from stress. This is harmful to the workplace environment too; as it can lead to increased staff absences, high-turnover rates and decreased employee engagement. Research undertaken in 2008 estimated that workplace bullying may cost UK organisations £13.75 billion annually . Suffice to say, bullying is bad news and something to nip in the bud as soon as possible.
So, what can we do if we see bullying behaviours in our workplace?
First off, we need to identify, is what we’re witnessing really bullying? Bullying can be subtle and the distinction between bullying and (in some cases) criticism is nuanced. Constructive criticism aimed at helping a colleague to improve isn’t bullying. But in certain instances, it may be difficult to distinguish from criticism especially if it feels overly harsh.
A good approach can be looking to understand the intention behind people’s comments (do they seek to humiliate or belittle a person) and the subsequent impact such comments or behaviour have on your colleague (do they seem withdrawn and shy to voice their opinions?). That will give you a good guide if something untoward is happening or not.
Document what's happening
If you are experiencing bullying or know someone who is, it’s a good idea to document what’s happening. Be as specific as possible; when, where and who and the impact it’s having on you and your ability to perform your work tasks. Equally, if you receive notes, emails or comments that you (or your colleague) consider to be bullying in nature, keep them on file.
Next, take a look at your work policies. Your workplace may have an anti-bullying policy and/or guidelines on how to manage a complaint of bullying. This can be a useful resource to turn to if you’re unsure of the next steps.
Speak to the bully (gulp)
If you feel comfortable doing so, you could confront the bully. Keep it calm, polite and take a neutral third party with you if that helps. Explain which comments and behaviours you feel are inappropriate (this is where keeping a record comes in handy) and explain the impact it’s having on you (or your colleague, if you’re doing it on someone’s behalf). You don’t need to approach the issue this way, but sometimes bullying behaviours are out of people’s direct awareness – and so making them aware may be enough to get them to stop.
Get support from work
If you’re not comfortable directly confronting the agitator, you can always report the bullying. Speak to HR or your organisation may have a designated person responsible for supporting colleagues with their wellbeing. Talk to someone you trust, the more senior the more likely they are to be able to help.
If you’re a member of a union, a union representative could offer support on how to manage the situation too.
The takeaway: It’s important to remember you’re not alone. If workplace bullying is becoming an issue for you or one of your colleagues then seek out support. There are different approaches and avenues you can take to ensure that workplace bullying doesn’t continue to affect you or your team.
Managing Conflict in the Workplace (2018). CIPD.
The Cost of Workplace bullying (2008). Dignity at Work Partnership.