What is Workplace Bullying and How Can it be Prevented?

Bullying in the workplace is a very serious issue. Let's take a look at how you can tackle it to make the 9 to 5 a safe, welcoming, and positive environment for everyone.


Workplace bullying comes in many different shapes and forms. And unfortunately, it’s more common than you might think, taking place in businesses of all kinds, from the smallest start-ups to huge corporations. Left to go unchecked, workplace bullying can reach bullying point, spiralling into that serious an issue that it becomes a matter for the courts.

Whether you’re an employee or an employer – bullying, harassment, and inappropriate behaviour has the power to turn companies into places where people feel scared, uncomfortable, and attacked. But what is classed as bullying in the workplace, what actions can you take when you see it happening, and how can it be prevented? Let’s take a look.

What is workplace bullying?

To be as clear and unambiguous as possible, a serious issue like workplace bullying requires an official definition. For that, let’s turn to the gov.uk website, which defines workplace bullying and harassment as:

Bullying and harassment is behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. Harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.

Examples of bullying or harassing behaviour include:

  • spreading malicious rumours
  • unfair treatment
  • picking on or regularly undermining someone
  • denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities

 

Bullying and harassment can happen:

  • face-to-face
  • by letter
  • by email
  • by phone

 

From the above definition, it’s clear that bullying takes other more insidious forms than the name-calling we may associate with playground bullying from when we were pupils at school. And sometimes, it’s these more covert kinds of bullying that can leave victims feeling more isolated and hurt.

Workplace bullying can lead to a host of negative consequences, including:

  • Poor relationships between colleagues
  • Decreased productivity
  • Increased hostility and conflict
  • Increased turnover
  • Mental health risks (e.g., anxiety, poor sleep, stress)

 

Bullying differs from harassment since it isn’t technically illegal. Nevertheless, when it isn’t addressed, it becomes easier for people to carry on with their actions – especially if the bullying is more subtle and less easily recognised.

How to spot workplace bullying

Bullying also tends to be distinct from harassment in that bullying is generally behaviour that continues over time. Harassment may instead be limited to a single instance. Because of this, bullying can more readily be spotted in the workplace.

Be on the watch for examples of workplace bullying, such as things like:

  • Co-workers being left out of things such as team lunches, work events or even just office small talk
  • Co-workers being asked to carry out tasks that are outside of their usual duties, without the right training
  • Co-workers being asked to carry out difficult or pointless tasks – and being criticised when they can’t get them done
  • Co-workers being ignored by or isolated from others
  • Intimidating, undermining or hostile comments or gestures
  • Constant unfair criticism or placing of blame
  • Aggressive verbal or non-verbal communication (including if it takes place over digital channels like email or Slack)
  • Hearing malicious rumours or hearsay about members of staff

 

What to do if you think someone is being bullied

It can be easy to ignore workplace bullying because of the fear of reprisal if you do speak up. But by letting bullying run amok, you can end up contributing to the creation of a toxic environment. With any luck, your company will have workplace policies against bullying which can make speaking up about bullying a safe, healthy thing to do.

Should you witness bullying, you can help by doing the following:

  • Offering support: The victim might feel as though they have nowhere to turn. Whether they’re approaching the bully to stop or going to HR, be by their side so you can act as a witness to these interactions
  • Listening: Chances are, they’ll want to vent about what’s going on. Offer to hear them out if they don’t feel comfortable about talking to HR
  • Reporting the incident: By escalating things to colleagues who are experienced in dealing with conflict, you can help to speed up the resolution of any workplace bullying incidents
  • Maintaining a strong relationship with the co-worker: If they’re feeling isolated from others or they lack relationships with colleagues outside of work, check in on them, ask about their day, and take the time to strike up conversations with them.

 

How to deal with workplace bullying

If you’re an employer, then you’re pretty much duty-bound to meet bullying in the workplace head-on. If you’re serious about preventing it, consider the following:

Implement an anti-bullying policy

The first step to stamping out bullying? Get your policies in writing. An anti-bullying policy makes your stance clear when it comes to what types of behaviour are unacceptable in the workplace.

In the policy, detail any examples of behaviour that will not be tolerated while at work, along with the consequences that will take place should employees be in violation of the policy. Make sure to circulate the policy across the company, and have all members of staff sign it so they fully understand its importance.

Train up managers

Not every manager will be well-versed when it comes to dealing with issues relating to bullying. Training them up will familiarise them with what workplace bullying looks like, the effects it can have on team members, and the appropriate measures to take should any incidents take place. Doing so ensures that managers can act appropriately without the need to escalate the matter to HR – or anywhere higher.

Be proactive in your investigations

Instances of bullying shouldn’t be taken lightly. Whenever you’re approached about such issues, you should always take them seriously. That means investigating things as soon as possible and recording anything that will help you get to the bottom of the matter.

Be sensitive when investigating

It’s important to be mindful of those who approach you about instances of bullying. More often than not, they might come to you feeling scared, nervous, or embarrassed about airing their grievances. That’s why you should do everything you can to make them feel comfortable and at ease. Make it clear that you’ll tackle the issue in a sensitive, confidential, and prompt manner. By not taking this approach, you could risk undermining the employee, which might stop them from reporting any instances that might take place in the future.

Practice consistency

Crucially, sticking to the standards laid out by your anti-bullying policy is one of the most important things you can do. When it comes to dealing with bullying behaviour, what goes for one person, should go for all. This is not a time when you can afford to play favourites or treat certain people differently just because you like them. Be consistent in your actions with regards to similar situations and show everyone in the workplace that dealing with bullying is something you take with the utmost seriousness.

 

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