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October 2009: Spotting and stopping bullying at work

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Human Law Ezine - October 2009

Spotting and stopping bullying at work – why it’s so important

Last week Personnel Today reported that one in three young women say they have been bullied at work. The trade union has launched a campaign demanding new anti-bullying laws after its research revealed the problem “is spiralling out of control”.

The survey of 7,151 Unison members showed that young women were particularly at risk of bullying and the most common perpetrators were older women in more senior professional positions.

A majority (73 per cent) believed that bullying was fuelled by increased work pressures during the recession and 40 per cent felt that bullies were tolerated in the environment created by the credit crunch.

But while nearly 73 per cent of all young women knew their employer had a bullying policy at work, 65 per cent said it has not been enforced. Just over half felt that bullying had got worse because their organisation had not taken action.

Unison said the majority of bullied women suffer from anger, mental stress, depression, lowered confidence and insomnia.

As one can see bullying is a significant issue for women in organisations but our experience tells us that it’s not just women who suffer. But how do you spot and how do you stop it and why is it so important.

How do you spot bullying?

Let’s be clear in our definition of bullying which we see as persistent unwelcome behaviour, mostly using unwarranted or invalid criticism, nit-picking or fault-finding. It can also be manifest in exclusion and isolation, being singled out and treated differently. It might include being shouted at or humiliated or involve excessive monitoring, having verbal and written warnings imposed, and much more. In the workplace, bullying can be amongst colleagues or between manager and subordinate where it often focuses on distorted or fabricated allegations of underperformance.

For any experienced manager certain obvious signs, including verbal abuse, and in extreme cases physical abuse, are easy to spot.

But there are often more subtle signs which are easily missed, including by the victims. This includes bullies setting unrealistic deadlines, manipulation of expenses and holiday schedules and the bullies displaying fear of delegation.

The key way to identify bullying is to focus on the motive of the bully who in my experience is often insecure and seeks to project that insecurity onto others. As is suggested by the Unison research the personal circumstances of the bully, including increased economic pressure, can exacerbate bullying.

How do you stop it?

Firstly don’t ignore bullying. Burying your head in the sand and pretending it’ll all blow over won’t solve the problem in the long term. Create a culture where bullying is not tolerated, this includes being willing to discuss bullying in an open and informed way at all levels of management.

Organisations need to lead from the top and make dealing with organisational culture a priority as bullying can be a manifestation of an organisation which does not fully respect its staff. Some companies are adopting a dual focus on organisational performance and organisational health.

Organisations which are predisposed to bullying have often focused just on profit at the expense of respect for the dignity of the worker. Healthy organisations typically have a culture which promotes trust, openness and engagement and enables continuous learning and improvement. This includes specifically relating to bullying, strong (rather than superficial respect) from the management to junior staff, sound procedures and use of mediation.

Why you must tackle workplace bullying

Workplace bullying has a devastating effect both upon individual employees and upon company productivity. According to the TUC, bullying in the workplace costs UK businesses in excess of £2 billion every year through a combination of ‘lost time, lost incentive and lost resources’, as skilled employees take time off work, lose motivation or suffer stress burnout and leave their job altogether. The organisation loses a key member of staff and the individual loses the opportunity to advance.

The psychological effects of workplace bullying include low self-worth, low self-esteem, and even posttraumatic stress. People dealing with bullying at work feel helpless and not in control over their environment or feelings. The more they feel the bully is in control, the more their feelings of self-worth plummet.

Those companies that don’t tackle bullying head on are in for costly and protracted disputes. Having been involved in bullying cases as both a mediator and a solicitor, my own experience is that bullying cases are time consuming, stressful, complex and expensive. Not a great prospect for any business or organisation.

Our advice? Create a culture of mutual respect, don’t tolerate behaviour that is inappropriate, train your staff to recognise bullying behaviour in themselves and others and equip your managers with 21st century management skills which include coaching and mediation techniques to resolve employee disputes effectively before they get out of hand.

For advice on your legal responsibilities in relation to bullying at work or for help in conflict resolution contact Justin Patten of Human Law Mediation.

Further reading:

Why consider mediation to resolve workplace disputes?

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