Clearly a difficult and sensitive area, tackling bullying and harassment in the workplace is made more complex by the fact that it is not always easy to identify or define – one person’s ‘bullying’ can be another’s ‘firm management’. Ultimately, the label ‘bullying’ can be correctly applied to any behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended. And whilst bullying is not against the law in the UK, harassment is, under the Equality Act 2010. It can take place face-to-face, by email or via social media, and examples of such behaviour include:
- Spreading malicious rumours
- Unfair treatment
- Picking on someone
- Regularly undermining a competent worker
- Denying someone’s training or promotion opportunities without reason
If colleagues leave the company because of bullying, become so anxious and stressed they have to take time off work or experience a negative effect on their performance and wellbeing there are very real consequences – at best, staff turnover will be high, at worst you may end up in an industrial tribunal. It’s not good enough to turn a blind eye, to think that this sort of behaviour is inevitable in any pressured working environment – everybody has the right to work as part of a motivated, engaged, supportive and productive team.
Before you dismiss the very thought, please take a moment to consider the definition of bullying above: ‘behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended’. The key word is ‘feel – how somebody interprets your words and actions may be very different to how you intend them. In my experience, bullying often builds up slowly, to the point where it becomes intolerable to the victim. Often, the more a person is bullied, the more his/her confidence is undermined, to the point where it may be almost impossible to challenge or report it.
I remember as a vet early in my career, asking my new boss a perfectly reasonable question; only to be sworn at violently and aggressively in front of other members of staff. I was mortified and, even though I knew I was in the right, I felt undermined and belittled. I spoke with him about his behaviour, but imagine if I had been a more junior member of staff or was already lacking in confidence? It’s so easy for bullying behaviours to be copied and perpetuated, so that an environment of fear and mistrust becomes the norm.
There is no such thing as a typical bully. The most obvious are the aggressive ones who lose their temper and shout at junior members of staff or colleagues in front of others. But bullies can act subtly and insidiously, undermining colleagues by constantly criticising or taking work away from them. Bullying can also be obstructive – blocking another member of staff’s progress, refusing training opportunities or making threats to a person’s job security without foundation or due procedure.
Self-awareness is key
Often a bully has no idea of the impact that their behaviour is having on others, hence my question, could you be a bully? Raising the subject with someone who you believe to be a bully therefore requires a sensitive but firm approach. I recommend using a simple three-step process to give clarity and structure to your feedback, which remember may well come as a complete surprise to the ‘bully’:
- Situation. Define where and when bullying has occurred.
- Behaviour. Give examples of specific actions or communications that you feel can be defined as bullying.
- Impact. Set out the effect of the behaviour, both on the individual(s) involved and on the wider team and practice.
I also find that personality profiling is enormously beneficial in holding a mirror up to anyone working in a team – by definition an individual cannot know how others really feel about him or her, because each will have their own unique perception and interpretation based on what they see and experience.
Using behavioural profiling identifies how everyone likes to be communicated with:
- Details or the big picture?
- Real world examples or metaphors?
- Taking time to absorb and reflect or pitching straight in
With an understanding of these natural preferences, each of us can then flex our own communication style accordingly – reducing miscommunications, building a more effective and harmonious team and ultimately helping to reduce the incidence of bullying in practice.
And finally, remember that any bully’s biggest ally is silence. So if you see something that you know to be wrong, the right thing to do is to say something.