Bullying in the workplace is all too common. For example, a survey in 2009 by the trade union Unison of 7,000 of their members found that 2,466 people had been bullied in the previous six months and over 1,500 people were experiencing ongoing bullying.
Bullying can have a devastating effect on the victim and seriously impact their health and mental wellbeing. It can lead to loss of self-confidence and self-esteem and feelings of anxiety, humiliation, frustration and anger. It can also give rise to sleep or eating disorders, depression, alcohol or drug abuse and even suicidal thoughts. It may result in absence from work and can severely damage both work and home life.
What is workplace bullying or harassment?
There is no legal definition of bullying, but there are many common themes in the descriptions given by organisations providing information and advice on dealing with workplace bullying.
ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) describes bullying as:
offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. Bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people. It may be obvious or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.
Some people may be bullied at work because of a particular protected characteristic. A protected characteristic is age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
If this is happening to you, the behaviour of the perpetrator may constitute harassment, as defined by the Equality Act 2010 and may therefore be unlawful. The Equality Act defines harassment as:
unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic … and the conduct has the purpose or effect of violating [an individual’s] dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment [for that individual].
What is a bully:
Bullies are often more senior than the person they are bullying but this is not always the case – sometimes a bully will be a co-worker, a junior colleague or a customer or client.
People may join in the bullying because they themselves are worried that they will become a victim of the bullying if they do not.
Bullying does not necessarily take place face to face, it can also happen via other communication methods, such as phone, email and in writing, social networking sites or via visual images such as photos.
Bullying can take many different forms. This might include:
spreading malicious rumours
ignoring or excluding someone from work or social activities
deliberately withholding information
humiliating someone in public
giving someone unachievable tasks or overloading them, setting impossible deadlines
removing responsibilities or giving someone trivial tasks to do
misuse of power or position
constant criticism of a competent staff member and undermining behaviour
undervaluing someone’s contribution
blocking promotion or training opportunities
personal insults, name calling, constant teasing or making offensive, for example, racist comments
demanding someone works extra hours
unwelcome sexual advances
shouting at someone
physical attacks on a person or their property.
How to deal with bullying:
Bullying can be gradual and insidious and consequently it may be a while before you realise and acknowledge what is happening to you. So a first step is to accept that you are being bullied. It is easy to feel that you have somehow caused it to happen but it is important to remember that bullying is not your fault and no one has the right to treat you like that. It may help to avoid situations where you are alone with the bully.
Bullying is best dealt with at the earliest stage possible, before the behaviour towards you becomes entrenched. As soon as you experience treatment that is unacceptable to you, common guidance is to take steps to make it clear to the perpetrator that you find the behaviour unacceptable and get them to stop. Sometimes a simple “don’t speak to me like that” or “I feel that you are undermining / humiliating /being offensive to me, is that your intention?” is all it takes and you will have no more trouble. You could talk to them in a public place, though this may be better done at the second attempt since it has been known to cause more confrontations as the bully feels humiliated and may seek to get their own back. Often, a private, simple and politely assertive approach is the best way to begin proceedings.
Make sure that you seek support from others if it is needed and do not try to cope with it on your own. You could talk to a work colleague or a union representative, or your manager. If it is your manager who is bullying you, you could speak to their manager or someone in the HR department.
Don’t let it affect your home life:
Make sure you have things to look forward to outside work. See your friends and family and carry on your leisure activities as normal.
Keep a record:
Record keeping is important and, in the event of a hearing or any court action, a diary can establish a pattern of behaviour. Keep a record of all incidences of bullying behaviour, including date and time, what happened and the name of anyone else who was present. Keep all letters, emails, texts and any other correspondence. This will show the pattern and extent of the bullying and will be vital if further action is necessary. Note also any illness and/or absence as a result of the bullying and any medical help you have sought.
If the perpetrator is aware a diary is being kept it may alert them to the fact that their behaviour is unacceptable and may cause them to modify such behaviour.
Make sure that you keep your record at home or somewhere safe, where it cannot be found and/or stolen.
Formal action at work:
If the bullying continues following a direct approach to the bully, you could consider making a formal complaint to your employer. Employers are responsible for the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Check whether your employer has a policy on bullying and harassment and obtain a copy.