Bullying - advice for employers

Written by Emily Whitton
Emily Whitton
Counselling Directory Content Team

While many associate the term ‘bullying’ with school years, it’s important to remember that bullying can happen at any stage in our lives and anywhere. This includes work and, sadly, bullying is still a common problem in the workplace.

The difference between bullying and harassment

Although closely related and the terms are often used interchangeably, bullying and harassment are different things.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) defines bullying as "Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient." Harassment is "Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual."

A key difference is that bullying isn’t against the law, but harassment is. Employees can also make harassment claims even if it is not directed at them. For example, if a manager was harassing a member of their team because they are gay, another member of the team could claim harassment against the manager as it has created an offensive office environment for them too.

Bullying over a period of time has an impact on your health. Often it will be hard to get away from the bullying because when you are away from work it is all you can think of. Bullying at work often undermines our self-confidence and our belief in our abilities. Consider talking to a counsellor (perhaps there is a confidential service through your employer) or a friend about what is going on.

- Graeme Orr MBACP(Accred), UKRCP Reg. Ind. Counsellor, listed counsellor/therapist.

Bullying and harassment do not always take place face to face, in fact in the workplace it often happens through written communications, email or via telephone, including:

  • spreading rumours
  • exclusion/victimisation
  • unwelcome sexual advances
  • copying people into critical emails
  • overbearing management/misuse of power
  • threatening job security without grounds to do so

If you are an employer looking for support on how you can manage bullying in the workplace, you can find a qualified counsellor on Counselling Directory. 

Creating a bullying and harassment policy

To eradicate bullying, the first step is to introduce a robust anti-bullying policy, including a clear statement of commitment, repercussions and examples of unacceptable behaviour. More information can be found on the GOV.UK website. Having a well-publicised document ensures every employee knows what to do if bullying is taking place, encouraging employees to come forward instead of suffering in silence. By setting an example as the employer, you’re helping to remove the stigma attached to bullying.

What to do if an employee is being bullied

If an employee comes to you with a complaint, be clear that you will handle the situation sensitively. Anonymous statements can be used to ease an employee's concerns about the issue being raised with the accused (who will have a right to know the nature of the complaint so they can defend themselves).

Ensure all involved are aware that they need to keep things confidential and that retaliation will not be tolerated. Encourage those involved to keep a diary of events as this may be required for evidence if disciplinary action takes place. Be sympathetic and talk to your employees on a human level, not an ‘employer to employee’ level.

Depending on the situation there are various approaches you could take:

Informal approaches

In some instances it is better to approach the situation informally, involving a discussion with those involved and an agreement that the behaviour will stop.

Disciplinary action

If a formal complaint is made, follow your company’s disciplinary procedures in line with your anti-bullying policy. Keep in mind that if it is harassment, legal action can be taken.

Mediation and counselling

During the disciplinary procedure, it may be helpful to have a mediator present. This is a voluntary process that involves having an independent third party present to help two or more people in a dispute find a solution.

You may want to contact a counsellor to support your company. Counselling can offer a confidential avenue for informal approaches and may help resolve issues before formal action is required.

Offering support

During bullying investigations, providing support and managing relationships is paramount. Focus on solutions and listen to the individual’s suggestions. If not addressed, bullying can lead to high staff turnover, increased absence and low team morale. Making anti-bullying a priority as an employer can make difficult situations easier to handle, contributing to a more positive and happy working environment.

Creating a bully-free environment in the workplace

Here are some quick-fire tips to encourage a bully-free working environment:

  • Ensure communication is solid, keep staff updated on change and encourage a collaborative management style.
  • Consider diversity training for your staff.
  • Keep your anti-bullying policy highly visible.
  • Consider alternative incentives for high performers to discourage competitiveness.
  • If you’re uncomfortable managing poor performance, seek further training.

Useful resources

There are a number of other organisations that can offer support and advice on workplace bullying.

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