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Workplace Bullying

Updated: Feb 26, 2021

This week it’s Anti-Bullying Week 2020 here in the UK. If you have young kids, they probably wore odd socks to school on Monday. When we think of bullying, we often think of children. Sadly, many adults also experience bullying and harassment in the workplace.

I experienced bullying in 2 jobs over the course of my career, so I know personally what a devastating impact bullying at work can have. My own experiences were largely responsible for my career change into Corporate Training Consultancy. Because I believe that everyone should have the right to work in a happy, healthy and supportive workplace. I strive to help businesses achieve this through my corporate training workshops and consultancy.

The theme for Anti-Bullying Week 2020 is “United Against Bullying”. For this theme to have any practical impact, it is vital that employers thoroughly investigate and address instances of workplace bullying. Likewise, if you observe behaviour directed towards a colleague that you believe could constitute bullying or harassment, don't be afraid to call it out. Doing so shows that you stand in solidarity with that person, and that you're unwilling to condone inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour. Creating better workplaces cannot happen if we turn a blind eye to situations that we know are wrong. Plus, you may too one day find yourself in the unfortunate position of being bullied at work. I’m sure we would all hope that witnesses would speak up for us if they had seen or heard of instances of us being subjected to bullying or harassment at work. Therefore, it is only fair and right that we should do the same if we witness something we know to be wrong.

What is Bullying & Harassment?

According to ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) bullying is “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient… It may be obvious, or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual”.

ACAS define harassment as “… unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient”.

What does Bullying & Harassment look like in the workplace?

Despite ACAS collating a list containing examples of behaviour that can constitute bullying and harassment, it’s vital to remember that often, bullying may not be so obvious. It can often be conducted in very subtle ways that can easily fly below the radar. Bullies are savvy, and often know just how to behave in such a way that makes it hard to prove allegations of bullying. This can often lead to it being completely denied by the perpetrator and downplayed by the employer, who may find it quite challenging to see clear evidence of the acts and omissions in question. This can result in the complainant being made to feel like they’re making it up, overreacting or that they’re the problem.

Here are some examples of more subtle behaviours that can constitute workplace bullying:

· The spreading of false or malicious rumours.

· Picking on someone through things said or done.

· Intentionally setting someone up to fail.

· Purposely undermining a competent and capable worker with unduly harsh and constant criticism.

· Insulting behaviour face to face, through acts or omissions, or via social media.

· Subjecting someone to ridicule or demeaning them.

· Being overbearing and unfair in supervision of subordinates.

· Falsely implying a person’s job could be at risk, either through direct threats or subtle comments.

· Blocking members of staff from accessing opportunities for progression or to develop their knowledge and skills through training opportunities.

What can you do if it’s happening to you?

If you’re experiencing bullying of harassment at work, here are some suggestions to hopefully help you navigate the situation, and ideally to put an end to it.

Now it’s probably the last thing you want to do in this situation, but try confronting the perpetrator and outright asking them to stop. Explain exactly what they’re doing, and how it makes you feel. Often bullies will be completely caught off guard that you’ve directly pulled them up on their behaviour. What we naturally want to do of course is avoid the situation, out of fear of making it worse by letting them know they’re getting to you. When reflecting on my own experiences, I wish I’d confronted my bullies head on about how they made me feel. Doing so will also help your case if the situation continues, despite you having directly asked them to stop. If you do speak to them, ensure you document when, where, and what you said. If it’s possible, try to do it in front of someone else so you have an independent witness who can vouch for what you said.

If this doesn’t work, or if you just can’t face speaking to them directly (I know, I’ve been there), consult your Line Manager to see if an informal meeting can be arranged. If your Line Manager is the perpetrator (as in both of my experiences), speak to the Manager above them. You may also want to let HR know, so that it can be documented that you’ve raised concerns.

If you need help with what to say or how to approach the situation, you could consult your Employee Assistance Programme if you have one. Alternatively, you can contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau, or ACAS for some free advice. You may also find some useful advice on their websites if you don’t feel confident about speaking to someone.

If the informal route doesn’t resolve the problem, you should review your employer’s policies to find the appropriate one that will outline the next steps you need to take. It will probably be called something like the Grievance Policy, Dignity at Work Policy or Bullying & Harassment Policy. Follow the steps outlined in the policy. It will likely ask you to submit a written complaint or grievance. In that document, you need to outline what has been occurring. It's important to be as detailed and specific as you can – with dates and times of incidents and supporting evidence if possible.

Next, outline the effect it’s having on you, and how you would like to see the situation resolved. There is no guarantee that your proposed resolution will be implemented, but it helps to give an idea of what outcome you're hoping to achieve.

The HR team will likely appoint an investigating manager to investigate your complaint and provide you with their outcome within the timeframes outlined in their policy. You should have the right to appeal the outcome if you disagree with the conclusion that has been reached. Make sure you do so within any appeal deadlines documented in the policy or in the outcome letter.

If the situation remains unresolved, it would be wise to seek advice from ACAS, Citizens Advice Bureau, or from a Solicitor specialising in Employment Law. It may be necessary to bring a claim in the Employment Tribunal if the situation cannot be resolved internally. However, this can be very costly if you hire a legal representative. Whilst you can represent yourself as I did, I was in the fortunate position of having worked in the legal profession for many years. I had also studied Employment Law as an elective at Post Graduate level, albeit over a decade prior to my claim. Despite my legal knowledge and experience, I still found the situation extremely stressful and overwhelming at times. I spent many hours researching it, as it wasn’t my area of professional specialism, and naturally the law changes and gets updated. Also, I had to do this alongside working a new and very demanding full time job, and caring for my family. The tribunal route is not for the faint hearted. Whether you're the Claimant or the Defendant, the process is unbelievably stressful and time consuming. It can also prove incredibly costly. Only proceed with this option if you know you have the drive in you to see it through as it isn't an easy situation to face practically and emotionally.

If you take nothing else away from this post, I simply want you to remember that workplace bullying is wrong, and you don't have to accept it. That applies whether you're experiencing it yourself, or whether you're seeing it being directed to others. We all deserve to work in environments and amongst colleagues who conduct themselves professionally and appropriately. If you think you're experiencing workplace bullying, please don't suffer in silence. Chances are it will continue and possibly even get worse if you do nothing. Seek out someone who can help internally or externally, or better yet, stand up to the bully and make it clear that you won't tolerate their behaviour anymore. The fact that you've challenged them may just be enough to make them think twice and modify their behaviour towards you.

Further support

The Courageous Conversations Podcast is where I have those important conversations about the world of work with my expert guests. Each week we share valuable tips and insights to help more organisations to create happier, healthier workplaces. If you enjoyed this topic, be sure to check out Episode 2: 10 Signs of a Toxic Workplace Culture, and Episode 3: Six Signs it's Time to Quit your Job. You can listen here on the podcast page of the website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all major podcast platforms.

Recommended reading

If you’re experiencing bullying yourself, or you’re having difficulty in navigating relationships with challenging people, I highly recommend the book ‘How to Deal with Difficult People’, by Gill Hasson. It has a specific chapter on bullying. It helps you understand the mindset of the perpetrator, how they may be covering their behaviour so others don't notice it, and ways you can respond to them. It’s available as a paperback, and you can also download it as an audiobook if you prefer listening to books.

About the author

Hannah Chadwick is the Founder and Director of Fortitude Training Limited.

Through her corporate training workshops and consultancy services, Hannah has helped her clients to create more positive and productive workplaces. She specialises in diagnosing and changing organizational culture, and employee engagement optimisation.

Hannah is passionate about helping people feel their absolute best in the workplace. Because we all deserve to be happy at work.


The details contained in this blog post are for information purposes only. The contents is not offered or intended to constitute any form of legal advice. You may wish to seek independent legal advice if you are experiencing any of the issues discussed in this post.

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