With most adults spending a significant proportion of their lives at work, the right to work in a safe and comfortable environment is indisputable. It should be guaranteed that employees can attend their place of work and confidently perform the functions of their role free from any type of workplace bullying.
However, despite this largely being understood at a base level, the UK is still considered to have something of a problem with workplace bullying. A YouGov poll for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) showed that up to 29 percent of people have been the victims of bullying – that equates to up to 9.1million people, a huge section of the UK workforce. A survey conducted by UNISON backs these findings, with 60 percent of their 6,000 respondents reporting that have either experienced or witnessed bullying within their workplace. Additionally, an ACAS poll conducted in 2015 revealed that they took around 20,000 calls to their helpline per year regarding bullying and harassment – this figure had stayed fairly consistent for over five years.
What constitutes bullying behaviour?
Bullying behaviour within the workplace is normally characterised as behaviour or actions that are offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting. Bullying can also constitute an abuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. It can undertaken by an individual or group of people, that create an intimidating or humiliating work environment for others around them. Bullying is normally conducted with the purpose of harming their dignity, safety and wellbeing.
Some examples of bullying behavior within the workplace include:
- Spreading malicious rumours or insulting someone by word or behaviour
- Exclusion or victimisation
- Unfair treatment
- Overbearing supervision or misuse of power/position
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Undermining competent workers by overloading them or constantly criticising
What doesn’t count as workplace bullying?
It is difficult to properly categorise what constitutes workplace bullying, as the way actions and conversations are perceived is entirely dependent on the thoughts and feelings of individuals. Many employers fail to see the legitimacy of claims of bullying, and can significantly underestimate the effects that a workplace bully can have on individuals.
However, broadly speaking, it is unlikely that bullying is occurring when:
- Minor disagreements over workplace projects, workloads or tasks take place
- An employee is asked to undertake new tasks that are reasonable and relevant to their role
- An individual or team is required to relocate within the office for legitimate reasons
- Minor personality clashes occur that do not involve aggression or upset on other side
Are employees protected from bullying by law?
Bullying as an individual concept is not against the law, but the waters are often muddied due to the fine line between bullying and harassment. If a colleague or manager is behaving in a way that employee deems to be intimidating or offensive, it could be construed as workplace harassment, which is illegal under the UK Equality Act 2010.
To be clear, examples of harassment include any instances of unwanted behaviour that relate to:
- Gender, sex, age or sexuality
- Marital status, pregnancy, or maternity/paternity rights
- Race, religion or personal beliefs
- Disabilities, additional needs or reasonable adjustments
These areas are identified as protected characteristics under the Equality Act.
Why could bullying be occurring in my workplace?
Research shows that workplace bullying is most common in organisations with poor workplace climates. It is normally instigated by someone in a more powerful position than the target of the bullying, and is frequently directed downward from a manager or senior manager to a subordinate. Whilst many studies have been conducted into the particular character traits of bullies, research has mainly been proved to be inconclusive, and often shows that traits associated with bullying may not be displayed unless brought to life in negative workplace environments.
These environments can institutionalise and normalise ill-treatment and bullying behaviour, with many choosing to brush off bullying behaviour as simply the way in which ‘things are done.’ This then leads to a resigned acceptance of any ill-treatment pervading the working environment.
Other tangible areas that can lead to a culture of bullying include poor job design, work intensification, long-term job stress, workplace conflict, job insecurity, cultures of self-interest, and institutional power imbalances. Other pressures can also arise from significant restructuring and organisational change.
What could the cost of bullying be to my organisation?
An ACAS report showed that the economic impact of bullying-related absenteeism, turnover and lost productivity was estimated at £13.7billion in 2007, and reflected a 1.5 percent reduction in overall UK productivity. This equates to a financial impact on GDP of approximately £17.6billion.
In addition to the human cost of ill treatment, there are other compelling reasons for you to do what you can to prevent it. These include:
- Sickness absenteeism
- Heightened labour turnover
- Lower organisational performance and quality of service
- Reduced productivity
- Employee assistance/counselling costs
- Industrial action and unrest
- Loss of public goodwill and reputational damage
- Lost resources and management time
- Financial penalties and compensation costs