Bullying in the workplace occurs when one or more individuals deliberately target another employee and engage in abusive behaviour. This can take the form of verbal or physical abuse, or a combination of both. Bullying can include making unwanted ‘jokes’, engaging in threatening behaviour or repeating derogatory remarks – for example, about someone’s appearance or achievements. At another level, some bullying employees seek to undermine their colleagues by withholding important information that affects the ability of the targeted person to work effectively. In some cases, employees may be deliberately misled about what is required of them or assigned to demeaning tasks beneath their station.
Unfortunately, workplace bullying is a common problem across most employment sectors. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) published a report in 2015 revealing that nearly one third of people have experienced adult bullying at work, and that it appears to be on the increase. Key findings were:
- Almost a third of people (29%) have been bullied at work
- In nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases, the bullying is carried out by a supervisor, manager or another person who has authority over the individual who is targeted
- More than one in three (36%) people who report being bullied at work leave their job because of it
- Women are more likely to be targets of bullying behaviour than men, at 34% compared to 23%
- Workplace bullying is most prevalent among employees aged 40-59 years old, where 34% of people are affected.
The effects of bullying or harassment in the workplace
People who are targeted by workplace bullies suffer emotionally and also often physically as a result. Bullies manipulate their targets, sometimes appearing friendly and supportive, only to flip personalities and demean or undermine others, often in public, with a view to disparaging them. On-going and relentless harassment at work can cause loss of self-esteem, depression, anxiety and a host of related physical symptoms such as insomnia, back pain and other stress related injuries.
Employees experiencing harassment and bullying are not likely to be very productive, thus contributing to the downward spiral in terms of their performance at work. At this point, they may well attract attention from a superior. However, if the background factors for their decrease in performance are not known, they may simply appear incompetent.
Dealing with bullying at work
Responsible employers will make sure several things are in place in order to prevent or deal with workplace harassment. Firstly, there should be a management policy that makes clear what behaviour will and will not be tolerated. You might want to display customized signage to reinforce your written policy about workplace bullying, indicating a zero tolerance policy towards abusive behaviour. Secondly, managers and supervisors should be vigilant in terms of detecting marked behaviour changes in employees. It is the employer’s responsibility to keep employees safe from any kind of hazard, and if left unchecked, workplace bullying represents a very real threat to employee welfare.
Finally, if an accusation of bullying is made, as an employer you must treat each party to a complaint equally and fairly, no matter their status, and be mindful of the fact that almost three-quarters of reported cases are carried out by senior staff members.