Written by Rebecca Brown, Co-founder and CEO of Think WOW
Too many studies show that bullying in the workplace is on the rise. Over a quarter of the workforce will now experience bullying in their career. That’s a staggering percentage given that we are adults and bullying should have no place in the office.
Having experienced bullying throughout school, I thought I’d left it behind when I became a ‘grown up’ and entered the world of work. I quickly found that I was wrong, and that bullying in the workplace has a very high cost. We’re adults, we know bullying is wrong. We know that we should try to show empathy, try to be kind, and try to approach business conversations with a modicum of professionalism if nothing else.
So why is does bullying happen at work, why should we care, and what can we do to stop it?
Psychologically bullies usually fall into one of two camps (or both). On a very simplified basis, those camps are that the bully has suffered themselves, feels insecure and handles that badly, putting others down to help themselves feel better or that they crave power and bullying is a habit formed to help them satisfy that craving for power.
The issue is that regardless of which camp your workplace bully falls into, both those characteristics are more likely to appear in leadership positions or positions of authority such as HR departments, management roles or even on the board (which doesn’t mean that every manager, HR or Senior leader is a bully!). This prevalence within positions of authority means that if bullying occurs in your organisation it can be difficult for the victim of that bullying to seek help, as often the channels open to them to raise concerns all lead back to the bully themselves. In extreme cases the bully may even be supported by the organisation due to them being too critical to operations to dismiss.
The net impact of a situation like this, is that the employee will suffer significant stress, usually take more time off than average, be less productive and eventually quit – whether they raise their grievance or not. This is damaging for the morale of the employee; but also for the morale of the other staff who may see what is happening and lose faith in the business to take it seriously, or may not know what is happening so feel resentful against that colleague for taking so much time off and not pulling their weight.
Either way, your employee experience starts to suffer and we all know by now that employee satisfaction is directly linked to customer satisfaction.
That is a compelling reason to combat bullying - but here is a more important one. Bullying ruins lives. Each year bullying causes thousands of people to lose their jobs, have an unexplainable gap on their CV, be left with long-term damage to their self-esteem and in the worst cases, can also cost lives. In an enlightened society where the cost of bullying is fully understood, there should be no workplace that doesn’t tackle it head-on. Here are some ways you can do that:
1. Get proactive
Most organisations hope they don’t have a bullying problem, and if you don’t then that’s great – but statistically speaking it is likely to happen one day unless you take preventative steps to both educate your teams and monitor their feelings. The first thing every organisation should do is to ask the tough questions, find out for certain if they have any issues or not, and make 100% sure they aren’t seen as an organisation that either doesn’t care enough to ask, or is firmly sticking their head in the sand in the hopes that ignorance really is bliss.
We’ve developed a completely free, fully anonymous Anti-bully health-check that your business can use to find out how your staff feel about your policy, how easy it is to report bullying, how happy they’d feel to report an issue and whether they even know what the signs are to look out for. It also asks if they have either been bullied or seen bullying at work in the last 12 months. It’s a great way to either get a bully-proof stamp and some peace of mind that you have everything covered – or to highlight any issues and start to fix them before they result in bullying.
Bullying comes in all forms and sizes, it’s notoriously hard to define and what feels like bullying to one person could feel like harmless fun or performance coaching to another.
It’s crucial that you have regular training and education resources available for all staff members on what bullying can look like at work, empathy, and emotional resilience and even active bystander training so that they are equipped to avoid, recognise or tackle any potentially unpleasant situations. It can also help employees recognise when their own behaviour could cross a line and makes it more likely that they will think before they act as well as reducing instances of ‘misunderstanding’ where one person feels bullied but the other had genuinely positive intentions.
Make bullying training part of inductions and then make it regular and compulsory no matter your seniority level (Even up to CEO) so that it’s clear what to do for all employees no matter the stage of their career or how recently they have joined. It helps employees feel safer, but it also sends a clear message that preventing bullying and harassment is a company priority.
3. Make it easy, and make it clear
Look at your bullying and harassment policy. Is it clear? Is it easy to follow and is it safe for everyone to use? What we mean here is that if it is tucked away in the staff handbook but not on posters in the toilets, or on the staff noticeboard in the kitchen then it’s probably not prominent enough. Does it give people multiple options on who they can report bullying to and as a result remove the possibility of a single point of failure if the person they should report the issue to is actually the person they have the issue with? In an ideal world you will have at least three nominated individuals all in different departments and of varying levels of seniority. They should be clearly identified to all staff with easy to access and confidential channels to report issues.
4. Don’t tolerate bullying from anyone
This is so important. Where bullying is evidenced and clearly established as having taken place, no one should be immune. No one individual should be considered irreplaceable. Whilst on paper they may seem to pull in the revenue, or have a department running smoothly or have 20 years of business knowledge – if they are bullying anyone within your organisation then the damage that they are doing transcends the impact they have on any other area. By allowing individuals like that to remain in a position because ‘they are too good at their job’ you send the message that you care more about money than people. Again, it damages your staff morale and risks giving your business a reputation for being a toxic working environment.
It’s important when bullying is identified you first try to mediate (assuming it’s safe to do so and the accusations aren’t serious and credible enough to justify a suspension during the investigation) and find a resolution that is acceptable for all parties, providing training and emotional support to both the perceived bully and the perceived victim to help them identify what the problem was, move past any damage caused by it, and to minimise the chances of it recurring.
If that approach doesn’t work and the bullying continues then there needs to be a zero-tolerance approach to the bully, no matter who they are.
So there you have it, bullying is toxic in all work environments and it can be very good at hiding. You may not realise you have a problem until it’s too late, and that’s a risk to your business, your reputation, and your teams. If you care enough to ask how you can proactively protect your teams then you will lead the way as an employer of choice with happy and productive teams.
How to get involved during Anti-Bullying Week?