What is bullying?

Although it is not new, the problem of bullying in the workplace has only become an issue identified by name in recent years. Dealing with the effects and causes of bullying is not simple but it is vital for the well-being both of the individual and of the organisation. Unforunately, bullying is common to many workplaces. It is worth noting that employers have a responsibility for their employees' behaviour both inside and outside the workplace in situations that are 'connected' with work. As a result, incidents that occur outside the workplace, in the pub on a Friday evening after work for example, need to be taken seriously by employers.

Bullying is typically defined as being 'any persistent behaviour, directed against an individual, which is intimidating, offensive or malicious and which undermines the confidence and self-esteem of the recipient'. Bullying is largely identified not so much by what has actually been done but rather by the effect that it has on its target. Examples of bullying include:

  • verbal or physical threats and intimidation;
  • persistent negative comments;
  • humiliating someone in front of others;
  • unjustified, persistent criticism, offensive or abusive personal remarks;
  • setting unattainable targets;
  • constantly changing work targets in order to cause someone to fail;
  • reducing someone's effectiveness by withholding information;
  • ostracism; 
  • picking on one person for criticism when there is a common problem;
  • not giving credit where it is due; 
  • claiming credit for someone else's work; 
  • belittling someone's opinion; 
  • making false allegations; 
  • monitoring work unnecessarily and intrusively; 
  • undervaluing work done; 
  • removing areas of responsibility without justification; 
  • imposing unfair sanctions. 

Not all bullying occurs face-to-face. For example, harassment by e-mail, or 'flaming' is a form of bullying. Prevention of harassment by text messages, e-mail or on social media websites should be covered within the policies of an organisation. Legitimate, constructive and fair criticism of an employee's performance or behaviour at work is not bullying. An occasional raised voice or argument is inevitable within the work environment and infrequent incidents of this kind would not fall under the definition of workplace bullying.

Because the perception of bullying is subjective, a management style that is regarded as normal and is encouraged in one organisation may be totally inappropriate in another. It is unacceptable to condone bullying under the guise of 'strong management'. Conversely, an assertive management style is acceptable provided that employees are treated with respect and dignity. 

Causes of bullying

Causes of bullying vary and any of the following could be contributory factors:

  • Lack of job security; 
  • Increased pressure on managers to meet targets, often with a reduced workforce; 
  • An aggressive or authoritarian culture; 
  • No code of conduct or policy for resolving interpersonal issues or disputes; 
  • Lack of training in management, supervisory and interpersonal skills. 

There is no easily recognised stereotypical bully as often bullies can be charming to people other than those whom they bully. Frequently, but not always, the bully is in a position of authority or power, which they abuse by bullying subordinates. There may be bullying at peer group level or even by subordinates or customers. Anyone can be the victim of bullying, which occurs throughout the organisational hierarchy. Subordinates can bully their bosses, as well as colleagues and peers, and direct reports. People in management or professional positions are most likely to have suffered from workplace bullying.

Dealing with the problem

The overriding feature of workplace bullying is that the person being bullied often does not feel that there is anyone to whom they can report the problem. Frequently this is because the bully is their immediate superior so there is no obvious route they can take to report the matter, particularly if the bully appears to enjoy the support of his or her supervisor. In this situation, it is essential that the organisation has in place a policy which will give the victim the confidence to report bullying. 

It is therefore important to establish an organisational environment where an open and trusting culture is encouraged. As best practice, organisations should offer counselling support for all staff and provide suitable management training in team-building. It is the duty of those with people management and development responsibilities, line managers and witnesses to bullying to help improve the situation. A few pointers include:

  • Being aware of all issues surrounding the recognition and prevention of bullying;
  • Ensuring that appropriate training programmes are available, particularly in management and supervisory skills and in interpersonal relationships. Assertiveness training that focuses on the difference between 'aggressive' and 'assertive' behaviour may also be effective;
  • Using an external, independent mediator when allegations of bullying are made;
  • Conducting employee attitude surveys (particularly if there is a suspicion of bullying), and taking action on findings;
  • Ensuring that thorough and well-structured exit interviews are carried out in order to determine whether there is a bullying problem;
  • If bullying is identified, offer appropriate assistance to the bully to encourage the individual concerned to modify his or her behaviour, or offer them a role with less pressure or opportunity for bullying.

Another strategy to tackle bullying is to engage an Employee Assistance Programme provider. Designed to create a lifeline for distressed employees, EAP's offer access to an impartial third party for anonymous counselling and assistance. EAP providers should be fully informed about any policy the particular organisation has relating to bullying and occupational health. An important aspect of the work of an EAP is that it preserves employee anonymity. The advantage of having an outsider is that they do not have the same potentially conflicting loyalties as someone within the company. An employee is also more likely to discuss any problems in circumstances where confidentiality is guaranteed before they reach a crisis point. 

Another good reason to set up an EAP is that in the UK it has been ruled that providing employees with access to such a provider might help to provide a legal defence against a complaint that the organisation tolerates bullying. However, it is also argued that an organisation may need to go beyond written policy and EAP's to change the company culture. This may be through management training and being seen to take firm and decisive action against workplace bullies.