Although most people tend to think about children and young adults when they hear the term bullying, there is actually a bullying epidemic amongst adults in the workplace. Bullying in the workplace is a major cause of stress for some employees and can have a damaging effect on the business as a whole.
What is workplace bullying? Bullying is a form of abusive behaviour where an individual or group of people use verbal or physical tactics to force, coerce, intimidate or dominate another person or people. Bullying can be verbal, physical or social (relational) in nature, and can be done in person or via modern communication methods such as texting or instant messaging. Workplace bullying is bullying that occurs in the workplace or between people who work together. This kind of bullying is often under-reported.
What are the effects of workplace bullying? Workplace bullying can have a number of serious effects on those who are subject to it. It can affect that person’s dignity, their emotional and physical well-being, and it can put them at risk of physical harm. Some people who are affected by workplace bullying also report that it affects their family lives too. Bulling in the workplace can cause stress, anxiety and depression. Prolonged stress may also manifest itself as a number of different physical problems.
Myths about Workplace Bullying. There are a number of myths about workplace bullying, because it is still an under-reported issue. Workplace culture in the United Kingdom holds some deeply ingrained traditions which can lead to bullying. Some employers may struggle to identify workplace bullying because they are so familiar with these traditions. Some employers may be quick to try to write-off workplace bullying as “character building”, however prolonged exposure to negative remarks, intimidating behaviour and psychological abuse can be emotionally debilitating. These actions should not be dismissed by employers.
Employers must also take care not to excuse bullying tactics as “leadership style”. Managers do not have the right to be overly aggressive, dominant or demeaning towards their staff. Some people in the workplace may also try to blame a “clash of personalities” for incidents of bullying. Although personality clashes can happen in the workplace, disagreements become bullying if a person is systematically excluded from areas that they would normally be able to access, regularly belittled by another person or if they are intimidated by their colleagues. Bullying by groups may also be passed off as “banter”. Although joking and humour can play an important role in the workplace, these jokes should not be at the expensive of another person. Banter can easily move from being acceptable to being cruel and harmful.
Does the law prevent workplace bullying? Bullying in the workplace is not specifically prohibited by law in the United Kingdom, however; there are laws which can be applied in some cases. For example, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits any form of harassment which relates to certain protected characteristics. These characteristics are; age, disability, gender reassignment, race, marriage, religion, sex, sexual orientation and pregnancy. Bullying which targets any of the protected characteristics is illegal. Each workplace may also have an independent policy or procedure about bullying at work, but if this isn’t helpful an employment solicitor will be able to advise more on what action could be taken if necessary.
In some circumstances, if somebody were injured physically by a workplace bully then potentially the bully could be sued for compensation via a criminal injuries claim.
Stopping Bullying in the Workplace. One of the best ways to stop bullying in the workplace is to promote a change in the traditional workplace culture. Educating staff about the Equality Act 2010 and improving anti-bullying policies can help to reduce the likelihood that bullying will occur. Increasing access points for staff to discuss their concerns about bullying can also make it easier for those who are experiencing workplace bullying to seek help.
If you think that you are being bullied in the workplace, you might be able to discuss the issues with your colleagues on an informal basis. If you feel comfortable and safe doing so, then you can tell your colleague that you believe that their actions count as bullying and that you will make an official complaint if they continue. However, you do not need to approach your colleague directly if you do not feel safe or comfortable doing so.
If you do not feel comfortable speaking to your colleagues on an informal basis, or if this approach does not work, then you should speak to a line manager, someone from your HR team or a representative from a trade union. Your employee handbook should inform you about how to raise an official grievance if you need to do so.
If very serious misconduct has occurred, or if your employee has failed to solve the problem to your satisfaction in the first instance, then you may be able to take legal action with an employment tribunal. You may need to seek external legal advice if you wish to do this. You employer has a responsibility to keep you safe in the workplace.