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BACK TO THE PLAYGROUND – HOW TO ADDRESS WORKPLACE BULLYING

When an organisation fails to protect its employees from bullying, adults in the workplace can become as vulnerable as children in the playground. Bullying in the workplace can seriously impact morale, wellbeing and safety, so what can internal communication do to help stamp it out?  

WORDS: ISABEL OVERTON

 

15th June 2020

Entering an organisation that has a bullying problem is like entering a time warp. Suddenly, you’re back at school – someone’s the brunt of a joke; people are being excluded from groups; and everyone’s doing their best to avoid becoming the target of unwanted attention.

Negative behaviours that remind us of our school days can cause a regression of sorts, and it can be hard for employees not to be affected by it. So, how can you stop a bullying mentality from harming your organisation and its employees?


Head in the sand

Unfortunately, bullying in the workplace is not uncommon, but, unlike at school, workplace bullies typically aren’t being held to account.

“An organisation that condones bullying behaviour – actively or passively – does itself and its employees no favours,” says Aryanne Oade, author of Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive and Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying.

“Leaving employees vulnerable to bullying can have a negative impact on their wellbeing, causing some to experience higher levels of anxiety and self-doubt.

“These feelings can manifest themselves physically, through trouble sleeping, a lack of energy and increased sickness. Someone carrying these burdens is likely to be drained and may struggle to deliver their best performance at work.”

And that’s not all. According to the Chartered Institute of Personal Development’s 2019 UK Working Lives survey, more than one in four workers who experienced workplace conflict in the previous 12 months said they were likely to quit their job as a result within the next year.

“Organisations that have a bullying problem may find they also have higher staff turnover rates, as affected employees conclude that their welfare is not important to their employer,” says Aryanne.

“Creating a zero-tolerance culture is important for organisations that want their employees to feel valued and use their energy, skills and commitment in the service of work, rather than in protecting themselves.”


Copycats

All employees should share responsibility for ensuring their colleagues are treated with respect and dignity in the workplace, but if bullying has become part of the culture, it will be near impossible to shift without buy-in from the CEO.

Lisa Bell, founder of HR consultancy Tell Jane, believes using hard data and feedback is a good way to create an incentive for enacting change. “Leaders can sometimes become so focused on the bigger picture, that they get disconnected from the day-to-day, and they may not understand the impact bullying on the ground is having on the wider organisation,” says Lisa.

“Collect data on staff turnover rates and business growth and productivity, and conduct internal surveys to gather employee sentiment on areas such as wellbeing and motivation. Use these to build a bigger picture for the CEO around the consequences of a poor working culture.”

The CEO can’t just buy in to your message for change, however. They also need to deliver it.

“Leadership should set the tone. Employees often see the behaviour of senior leaders as a reflection of an organisation’s values, so you need to ensure the CEO’s position on bullying is visibly clear.

“A simple way to do this is to put out clear statements from the CEO around what behaviour is acceptable, and what isn’t. Do this constructively by making it clear that this is what the organisation values.

“Connect with employees by using the CEO’s authentic voice, and avoid sounding like you’re telling people off.”


Make your feelings clear

The importance of outlining organisational values is a sentiment that David Liddle, CEO of conflict management specialist The TCM Group, shares.

“You can’t expect employees to champion values they’re not aware of,” says David. “This information should be abundantly clear in relevant policies and frameworks, but it should also be an ingrained part of your ongoing narrative, so that employees are familiar with them.

“Importantly, it should also be reflected in recruitment, onboarding and learning development. Work with the relevant teams to ensure key values and expected behaviours are embedded in job specifications, and that they are featured in training – both for new starters and for long-term employees. There should be an expectation that all employees – from the most junior to the most senior – should be living these values day in and day out.”


No joke

Most people believe they know what bullying is and what it looks like. Therefore, they may feel like they don’t have to pay attention to training and messages that aim to address it. But bullying can occur in many forms, some of which are often overlooked, and it’s important to communicate these.

One example of this is “banter” – a commonly used excuse to discredit accusations of bullying.

Emily Lovegrove, psychologist and anti-bullying consultant, says: “Allowing bullying to be excused as banter can be very harmful.

“Employees may not appreciate the fact that their banter is making colleagues feel uncomfortable, so use this very relatable situation to educate them. Find a way to show that there are different ways to interpret interactions. For example, laughter is not a reliable indication of someone’s feelings: we laugh when things are funny, but we also laugh when we’re embarrassed or feel uncomfortable.

“Communicating these more relatable yet lesser known types of examples will help you to make more impact.”

Lisa agrees, adding: “Make bullying real for employees by sharing realistic, overlooked examples of what bullying can look like, and put it into context by showing them how it can occur in a workspace like the one they work in.

“It needs to feel real in order to match up to lived experiences and grab attention.”


King of the castle

Often, a bullying culture is perpetuated through authority and control, which allows it to go unaddressed for a long period of time, as people fear the consequences of speaking up.

The line separating strong management from an abuse of control is essential, but it can often be blurred.

“In some cases, bullying can be overt, such as shouting, belittling or domineering,” says Bruce Daisley, author of The Joy of Work and founder of the Bad Boss Helpline.

“But more often than not, it will be superficially more innocuous: instilling a culture of presenteeism and micro-managing, demanding excessive accountability and expecting too much. To some, this may not be considered bullying, but it can have a massive bearing on an individual’s mental health – particularly if it goes against their style of working.”

If a manager is found to be bullying their subordinates, appropriate action must be taken by the organisation to address and extinguish this behaviour, but what happens when a bad management style is wrongly mistaken for bullying?

“Our experience of work is largely dictated by what I like to call the ‘line manager lottery’,” says Bruce. “Because of this, a clash in working styles can readily open managers up to accusations of bullying.

“Most of us have a clear idea of how we like to be managed, so if we have a manager that has a conflicting management style, or one who doesn’t communicate in a way that we are used to or we like, then their actions and behaviours can very quickly be perceived negatively.”  



70%
Poll respondents who have personally experienced some form of bullying or harassment in the workplace. 44% of those who have experienced bullying said the incidents were caused by bosses or direct managers.
IoIC poll, 2020

 

David believes that often in these situations, perceptions of bullying come about due to a lack of communication and engagement. “A manager may have valid reasons for addressing areas of work they’re unhappy with, or asking an employee to check in frequently, but delivery and openness are critical,” says David.

“I believe that people often tend to mistake conflict for bullying, and this can be very counterproductive. Some managers are bullies, but others may be unknowingly displaying bullying behaviours, often due to miscommunication, and this is where a lot of conflict arises.

“As experts in communication, IC has an important part to play in helping managers to express themselves appropriately.”

In Bruce’s experience, culture can play a huge part in how receptive employees will be to guidance such as this. “If not already present, find a way to instil a culture of supportive feedback and continuous learning in your organisation,” he says.

“Create an understanding that development never stops, no matter what role you’re in, and, as part of this, encourage the organisation to invest in management and the important skills that come with it.”



Unsocial media

Social media platforms and chat apps are useful tools for engaging and connecting employees, but they also have the power to alienate. With the rise of digital communication in the workspace comes a rise in cyberbullying among colleagues.

Adrian Wakeling, senior policy adviser at Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) says: “Social spaces should be like physical spaces – safe and inclusive.

“Cyberbullying can be incredibly hurtful, but often not easy to recognise. Copying people in to emails to undermine an individual; creating groups on chat apps with the purpose to exclude; and sharing inappropriate remarks about a colleague online: all of these are examples of cyberbullying and shouldn’t be tolerated in a professional environment.

“Work with the relevant department(s) to ensure social media and online activity is covered in your organisations’ bullying policies and guidelines, and remember to keep these up to date.

“Accusations of cyberbullying should be treated in the same way as other forms of bullying, so be sure to make this clear in guidance around social media and chat app use.

“You should also reiterate the behaviours employees are expected to display and those they are not, but avoid being too prescriptive so as not to alienate or undermine colleagues.

“When able, give teams a sense of autonomy in regard to developing their own rules around chat apps and the nature and tone of content within them. If people are able to set their own standards, they are less likely to break them.”


Inclusion, not exclusion

When cyberbullying isn’t direct or work-related, it can be hard for organisations to manage. Take, for example, the exclusion of an individual from a social group chat.

Lisa says: “Typically, you can’t dictate who gets added to a group chat that colleagues set up among themselves, so it’s harder to manage accusations of bullying or feelings of isolation that occur in this way.

Instead, focus on promoting inclusion and an overall ethos that encourages positive interactions and awareness of others, and hopefully that mindset will be replicated in employees’ actions.”

Some organisations might choose to monitor digital activities in order to protect employees, but this can foster a sense of mistrust and be seen as an invasion of privacy.

To lessen the fallout, Adrian believes communication is critical. “Many employees have very real concerns about being monitored too closely by their employers, so ensure whatever measures you put in place to monitor staff online are done in the name of safety, and that they have justifiable benefits,” says Adrian.

“Be transparent about what is being put in place, and why, and continue to update staff if and when it changes.”


The blame game

Addressing bullying in an organisation where it is present is vitally important, but avoid succumbing to blame culture when doing so.

“Often, when people feel targeted, their backs go up and they disengage,” says Emily. “Whenever you communicate about bullying, do it in a way that speaks to all employees, and make it clear that everyone has the same duty to uphold the behaviours and values that you are promoting.

“It might seem obvious, but don’t ever use real accusations or cases within your comms, and avoid using images of staff in visual materials if they are likely to be identified by their colleagues – regardless of whether or not they are portraying a bully or a victim.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do to help protect your organisation and employees from bullying is make anti-bullying sentiment a permanent fixture of your organisation.

“Be sure to keep communication around the topic open at all times – not just during dedicated campaigns or awareness days and weeks.

“And remember: bullying survives when it’s ignored.”


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LAYING DOWN THE LAW

All employees deserve to be protected from behaviour that makes them feel intimidated, offended or distressed, but, in the eyes of the law, bullying is not illegal. Here, Philip Landau, employment lawyer at Landau Law, explains the difference between bullying and harassment, and what legal rights workers have when it comes to bullying.

The effects of bullying can be just as harmful as the effects of harassment, and yet, unlike harassment, there is no individual legal claim for bullying.

Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to a “protected characteristic” set out in the Equality Act such as race, sex or age; and as a form of discrimination it is separated from bullying.

There is currently no legal definition of bullying, but there is still protection available for those who experience it in the workplace.

If bullying causes an employee to resign, it can give rise to a claim for “constructive dismissal” – a type of dismissal that occurs when an employee feels forced to resign because their employer has committed a fundamental breach of contract.

To successfully make this claim, a minimum of two years’ service is required, and, in the case of bullying, the employer would typically need to be aware of the issue and have failed to address it properly.

Employers have a duty of care to take reasonable steps to protect employees’ health and safety, so if bullying causes work-related stress, this can bolster a claim.

Though uncommon, bullying in the workplace can also sometimes escalate to the point where an individual may feel fearful for their safety. Threats and verbal abuse are crimes, so anyone who believes they are experiencing this is well within their rights to report this to the police.
 

Employee tipIf you are being bullied, keep a diary of incidents, including dates, what happened and how it made you feel. This can add credibility to a formal complaint or constructive dismissal claim, and it can help the police with their investigation if you need to report criminal behaviour.

Employer tip All organisations should have policies setting out the standards of behaviour that employees are expected to uphold, but be sure to also cover the organisation’s expectations of conduct for work-related events – which will cover after-work drinks – and all communication between colleagues, should incidents occur outside of working hours or online.


Members can read this full feature in the July 2020 print issue of Voice magazine.

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