How to…Stand up to Workplace Bullies
As many of us are venturing back to the office after months of WFH, and because it’s Anti-Bullying Week, we‘ve taken a long hard look at bullying in the workplace.
When you’re young, junior, maybe in your first job, you can feel particularly vulnerable and if you are having a tough time, you may question whether what you’re going through is really ‘bullying’, or whether you’re just not handling a situation well enough. We researched what constitutes ‘bullying’, we talked to employees who’ve been through it, and asked employers what to do if it happens to you.
Sadly, report that workplace bullying is on the rise and many people are too afraid to talk about it. (1) The claim that nearly 1/3 of people have experienced bullying at work, with 36% of those leaving their job as a result. Nearly half believe it has impacted their performance at work and the same proportion say it has affected their mental health. (2)
Most employers will have to deal with bullying at some point, and ACAS warns that the problem should be taken very seriously; they estimate it costs businesses almost £18bn a year in bullying-related absenteeism, staff turnover and loss of productivity. (1)
What is ‘bullying’?
Most people will recognise extreme examples like shouting, swearing or other aggressive, threatening behaviour. But workplace bullying takes many forms and can sometimes be subtler, though just as distressing.
Examples: (3) (4)
Being constantly criticised, undermined or picked on
Being put down or mocked
Being subjected to unreasonable demands or unfair allocation of work
Being regularly ignored or excluded
Spreading malicious rumours
Abuse of power to make someone feel uncomfortable or victimised
Withholding training or promotion opportunities
Bullying is not always face-to-face, but can also happen through social media, messaging, emails, phone or letters.
How do you know if you are being bullied?
There’s no legal definition, but this is the view of ACAS:
Bullying and harassment is any unwanted behaviour
that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended.
Source: Acas (1)
We spoke to Laura McEwan, Head of HR at Dogfish Mobile, a small company with a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards bullying. She says:
‘It’s all about how you feel – if you’re offended or intimidated, it’s bullying’
‘There is a fine line between bullying & harassment, but both are not OK, not to be tolerated. It can cover many different categories e.g. age – discrimination, pregnancy, race, etc. Bullying is any behaviour that you find intimidating or offensive. It could even be talking to a young person and saying “What would you know?”
I was bullied at school, so I understand how it feels and it has made me very mindful of what’s happening around me.’
It can be a tricky subject with plenty of grey areas – one person’s view of ‘bullying’ could be considered ‘strong management’ by another, or even dismissed as a personality clash. What is HR’s opinion on that?
‘Working in HR, I would always listen to both sides and our role is to act as a ‘mediator’ – assessing all the facts from both parties, what was said/emailed, gathering any evidence and then building a case based on this. It’s usually clear if it’s ‘strong management’ or ‘bullying’. If it’s ‘strong management’ but is offending people, this is behaviour we would still have to address.’
Three employees describe their ordeals. (Names have been changed to protect their identities).
‘I’m confident and outgoing and generally up for a challenge, but this was a game changer. I was working in a predominantly male industry, I have older brothers and I can take a bit of banter. But it seemed that with recognition of good work came resentment. And what had started as “a bit of fun” turned into a barrage of demeaning comments from a small group of male colleagues: I had only got my position because of my (supposed) privileged background, why was I bothering anyway when I would soon be off having babies, my degree (a science) was totally irrelevant, who was I to have an opinion when I had only been in the job 5 minutes, etc. etc.
Each individual remark was small, but they were persistent and built up to the point that I dreaded going to work, particularly when I would be meeting clients or senior managers, because it was eating away at my confidence and made me question my ability and reasoning. I would easily get upset, only to be told I was overreacting. After a year (it took that long because my self-esteem hit rock bottom), I found another job and quit. When I left, I raised the problem with HR, and wish I had done it earlier. But it’s tough when you’re new to a company and trying to make your mark. I’m now back to my happy old self, thriving in a company with a positive, energising culture.’
‘I worked in a client-facing role. My boss repeatedly made cutting remarks and criticised me in front of my team and customers. She seemed determined to trip me up, and would pass on every awkward situation for me to deal with. When none of that seemed to phase me (it did, but I refused to let her see it), she started piling on the work, knowing I couldn’t complete everything, putting me in the embarrassing situation of having to let people down and apologise to clients. After one particularly humiliating episode, I walked out, without a job to go to. Amazingly, friends at work said the boss was shocked and just couldn’t understand it! Seriously?!’
‘Bullying can happen to anyone, and for the most surprising reasons. I wasn’t fresh out of uni, nor in a new job; I was in my late 20’s, career going well, when a bully raised his (very) ugly head… A two-timing senior male colleague blamed me for the break up of one of his relationships(!) when his ex started going out with my flatmate. His perfect world was shattered and he turned his anger into a vindictive vendetta, because they had met through me.
It started slowly with snide remarks and sexist jokes, but when he became uncooperative, openly critical and hostile in important meetings, I began to feel undermined, vulnerable and realised he could actually screw up my career. (Our respective roles meant that my achievements depended on his cooperation and support). Fortunately his negativity was so blatant, that other people noticed: ‘OMG that was harsh!’ ‘Why has he got it in for you?!’ That gave me the courage to calmly confront him and tell him that I knew what he was trying to do, and if he didn’t back off I would report him. He did see sense, never apologised, but at least left me alone. Although he gave me no further trouble in the following year we had to work together, I was always wary and never trusted him.’
How to Deal with Bullying
‘You must stand up to a bully – whether that means confronting them directly, or speaking to a colleague, manager or HR. Do it calmly and professionally, but you must do it, otherwise it will go on and on and on.’
– William, Chairman of a large leisure company
If you can’t sort out the problem informally, talk to someone: HR, a manager, trade union representative or colleague – it’s important you don’t try to cope with it on your own.
‘Even if you’re not sure if it ‘counts’, raise it with HR or someone you trust within the organisation.
The most important thing is to understand your feelings – if you feel there’s unfair treatment or someone is picking on you, that’s bullying.’ (Laura, HR)
Laura explains how they would handle a bullying issue:
‘HR keep the issue entirely confidential, we hope this will give victims the confidence to report issues.
Bullying reports will generally be handled internally (victims can find sources for this to be handled externally if they please), but there are sources out there to help both the employer and the victim.
I would also recommend counselling to victims, as it can be a difficult & stressful time. After reporting something like this, the office environment can add to that stress, so I would suggest this be taken out the picture, perhaps some sort of garden leave. We would always keep the victim informed of what’s happening and how the situation is being dealt with.’
You could speak to your manager or another senior colleague, although it might be more difficult in a small organisation, or if you are being bullied by a manager.
If you are a member of a trade union, you could ask them for advice and representation. Their role is to protect their members, to prevent you from being ill-treated or unfairly sacked, and to help resolve issues.
Confide in a work friend or colleague you feel comfortable with – you may well find you’re not the only one being bullied or harassed, so raising the problem could help others too.
If you need to make a formal complaint
If your problem can’t be resolved by speaking to HR, a manager or your union, find out if your employer has a policy on bullying/harassment and you can make a formal complaint using their grievance procedure.
You can get free confidential advice from Acas on resolving workplace relationship issues.
If you have house insurance, it may include cover for legal advice and expenses, so do check.
Bullying can affect your mental or physical health and wellbeing. If it’s causing you stress or you’re worried about your health, speak to your GP and get support from family, friends or a professional. (See Support & Information Services below)
Don’t stand by
‘If you witness unfair treatment or someone being picked on, you have a duty to report it. We must all lead by example and tell someone. ‘
It can also help to let the victim know you have noticed (it helps them acknowledge what is unreasonable behaviour).
How should a victim prepare to report an issue?
‘Never feel you don’t want to cause trouble, you must report it. You should feel confident to come forward.’
Keep a record
‘Document each time something happens – do it while it’s fresh in your mind, as this will help with accuracy and confidence if you want to take it further. Keep a diary: dates, time, situation, what happened and if there were any witnesses.
It is particularly difficult to ‘prove’ when bullying is verbal, but my advice would be still report it, because it can still be investigated – were there people in the room at the time that we could talk to? We can watch their behaviour around you etc.’ (Laura, HR)
Prepare for every eventuality
The outcome might not be your ideal solution, especially if the bully is in a position of power. Your organisation may or may not take action. So think through your options – could you ask for a transfer, would you be prepared to leave and if so, start looking for another job, so you’re not left in a vulnerable position.
Treat bullying like any other work issue. Be as professional as you can. Showing emotion will give the bully reason to suggest you’re overreacting.
What if you’re worried that reporting bullying could ruin your career?
‘Remember, you’re not the only one. There are procedures in place, which means it does happen and it is recognised as an issue. The confidentiality should give victims confidence to come forward.
Don’t hesitate to report it. It’s important, to ensure the problem doesn’t escalate. Think how you would you feel if you witnessed someone else being bullied and didn’t do anything about it? Remember you could be helping someone else too.’
‘Be brave and the change is made.’
Thank you Laura, and all our other contributors!
Acas – Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service
Information & free advice on bullying at work & employment rights
Acas helpline: 0300 123 1100
(Mon – Fri 8am – 6pm)
Download the Acas guide: Bullying & harassment at work: a guide for employees
(2) ‘Nearly a third of people are bullied at work, says TUC’ (Nov 2015)
(3) ‘Bullying in the workplace: what employers need to know’ CIPD – People Management (Aug 2017)
(4) The signs of workplace bullying – BullyingUK