Nov 14

While we may like to believe that bullies are solely confined to the back of the school bus, workplace bullying is a problem within UK business – a much more serious problem than some of us may have realised as much of it appears to slip under the radar. 

It has a large impact on the UK labour force, costing the economy £18 billion year with more than 30% of people having been victims of workplace bullying. To put that into perspective, that is nearly 3 in every 10 works which equates to 9.1. million of the UK workforce – that’s more than the populations of Scotland and Wales combined!

What is Workplace Bullying?

Bullying in the workplace can take many different forms from exclusion, verbal insults and humiliation to unwelcome sexual advances, purposeful prevention of career advancement and threats to job security. It isn’t always easy to recognise straight as the typical view of bullying is thoughts of physical abuse and taunting in the playground, however workplace bullying involves a more mental type of anguish.

Bullying is defined as a persistent and intentional series of actions that work to break down the self-esteem and confidence of an individual. This could be by one person or a group of people. Traditionally, this happens face-to-face however with the rise of technology, modern day communication channels opens up other platforms for this sort of behaviour – this is called cyber bullying.

What Causes Workplace Bullying?

There has been research which suggests that workplace bullying can stem from uncertainty surrounding the economy which becomes a catalyst for office harassment, as financial pressures seep their way throughout the workplace. This can result in a competitive environment where people feel the need to assert dominance over other colleagues, in an almost ‘survival of the fittest’ type situation.

It has been found that 43% of workplace bullying victims reported that harassment stemmed from a line manager, with 38% saying it came from colleagues and one in five saying they had suffered bullying from a senior manager or chief executive. As they say with great power comes great responsibility but it can also lessen accountability with many at the top thinking they are simply too indispensable to be reprimanded or that colleagues may not report them due to their senior role in the company.

Unfortunately, the majority of workplace bullying stems from a culture that employers create. As mentioned previously, a competitive environment made up of ambitious staff can easily lead to hostility, as employees start to step over others to ‘survive’ or ‘progress’. A company’s attitude to discipline can also have a bearing on how quickly bullying can spread through the workplace. Being too lenient or not seen to be acting at all, when behaviours warrant actions otherwise, may led to employees taking advantage.  An employer and / or HR department need to therefore ensure that negative behaviours are met with negative consequences, without lacking understanding or empathy. 

The Costs of Workplace Bullying

It is estimated that workplace bullying costs the UK economy £18 billion a year, taking into consideration sickness-related absences as a result of bullying, staff turnover and the reduction of productivity.

There is much more to bullying than just the financial implications, with operational and human costs also being high. For employers, it can be easy to forget who the real victims are – the gradual rising pressure can have long-term health and career implications which eventually affect their personal life and relationships at home.

More than a third of people who report bullying leave their job, which while not just increasing staff turnover for the employer, obviously has a life altering impact on the employee.

Addressing Workplace Bullying

It has been found that 91% of workers believe that bullying in the workplace isn’t dealt with appropriately so it goes without saying that even the smallest organisations should have a clear policy for bullying and harassment – explicitly stating that bullying will not be tolerated by the company. It is also important to ensure that staff and HR are acting according alongside the policy and treat each complaint in a respectful and confidential manner.

Within many companies, there is also the option of mediation however in some instances it isn’t the most appropriate method as it works on the assumption that both parties are equal and are looking to rebuild a damaged relationship. This is often not the case in a bullying dispute and the victim is typically put at a disadvantage.

When informal methods fail or are not an option then disciplinary action usually follows, taking the shape of an investigation. The key to formal procedures is fairness, both to the complainant and the accused as sometimes false allegations may arise and should be met with a firm investigation. The formal process may differ from company to company however it loosely adheres to investigation, notification to employees, disciplinary meeting, action and appeal.

No one should suffer in silence – make yourself fully aware of the bullying and harassment policy in your workplace and speak out should you be in this difficult situation.