Workplace Bullying – Strategies for resolution and avoidance

Workplace bullying is more common than you might think. The ACAS Helpline receives tens of thousands of calls every year about workplace bullying and that is almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg. It is often said that people leave their boss and not their job and bullying (actual or perceived) is undoubtedly a factor in many cases. Surveys and research consistently show that bullying in the workplace is widespread and endemic.

Bullying can manifest itself in many different forms and can be very hard to define and to recognise. Much like beauty, bullying can be ‘in the eye of the beholder’ and depends upon a subjective point of view. A manager may believe that a struggling employee needs closer managing and supervision. The employee may see the manager’s conduct as unwelcome ‘micro-managing’ or bullying. This can make the proper resolution options hard to identify. The manager may be pressing for a capability procedure to be invoked while the employee may seek to raise a grievance, which may in turn lead to disciplinary allegations against the manager. Managers need to be trained to be aware of just how easily management behaviour can be perceived as bullying by those on the receiving end of it.

Bullying can also be a symptom of deeper problems such as discrimination. Higher than average incidences of bullying are found among particular groups such as ethnic minorities, LGBT, disabled and women in male-dominated professions.

Almost every workplace these days has some form of anti-bullying policy, but apart from some very anodyne statement of general principle about respecting co-workers, these policies tend to deal only with policing the consequences and not the causes of bullying. Procedures place the onus upon the victim to complain. However, victims may be very slow to complain for many different reasons. They often endure the behaviour until a ‘last straw’ event takes place or they have gone off sick with stress. This may trigger procedures such as sickness absence management procedures which may also lead to a grievance being lodged by the employee.

Grievance and disciplinary processes in relation to bullying allegations are very time-consuming and expensive and because they focus heavily on fact-finding and the attribution of blame, they rarely bring about a lasting resolution of the underlying issues. CIPD research in 2015 revealed that fewer than one third of employees consider that their employer has effective anti-bullying procedures. This suggests strongly that there is much work to be done in this area.

Part of the problem seems to be that bullying is not taken seriously enough by employers who are failing to identify and deal with issues quickly or adequately so as to avoid a real problem developing. Many employers fail to take any steps until after an allegation of bullying has been made expressly, often through the raising of a grievance. Many developing bullying issues are regarded as personality clashes or a clash of management styles and are dealt with by saying little more than “don’t worry, he’s like that with everyone”. However, left unchecked, bullying can lead to a culture where bullying becomes the norm or is at least acquiesced in by everyone.

It is probably best to view bullying first and foremost as  an organisational problem  rather than as an individual complaint or a series of individual complaints. It is clear from experience that allegations of bullying commonly have at their core an issue of miscommunication or misinterpretation as between individuals and that this is likely to be made worse where there is no culture of open discussion and constructive criticism. Workplaces that have a culture where the ‘difficult conversation’ is encouraged to take place at an early stage with a welcoming of constructive criticism and debate tend to have fewer bullying issues.

Creating a culture of free and frank exchanges of views is not always easy and has to be carefully managed. There is much benefit to be derived from training managers and supervisors in the art of ‘the difficult conversation’, because many people do not possess this skill and would prefer to avoid having to address the issue with the employee directly. Instead, of addressing the issue with the employer, managers and supervisors may alter their behaviour towards the employee, perhaps by being overtly critical of their work or simply by managing them more closely. This is the sort of conduct that can quickly lead to allegations of ‘micro-managing’ and bullying.

In addition to promoting a culture of ‘difficult conversations’, it is worthwhile considering the introduction of a mediation process, whether informally through in-house trained mediators or through the use of independent external mediators. Mediation can be an incredibly effective tool in dealing with allegations of bullying. It has very high success rates in resolving workplace relationship issues and can be of great help in assisting to create a resolution culture, where the positive aspects of conflict can be harnessed to enhance workplace relationships, to encourage problem-solving and innovation and even to increase productivity and profitability.


Bullying behaviours can include:

offensive words and conduct, intimidation, malicious acts, insults, abuse/misuse of power, undermining, humiliating, denigrating, assaulting, injuring, ill-treating, inappropriate/unwanted behaviour, unreasonable behaviour, unfairness, victimisation, ostracising, disrespectful/rude words or conduct, teasing, shouting, threatening, rumour-mongering, overworking, poor appraisals, denying promotion, denying bonus and many more…

Behaviours/events that may lead to perception of bullying:

Changes in job roles/responsibilities leading to change in management behaviour, increased workloads, job insecurity/redundancy risks, pressures on resources, loss of autonomy, financial pressures such as austerity initiatives, unattainable or near impossible targets, shortened deadlines, restructuring or other organisational changes, arbitrary or inconsistent application of rules, strict application of sickness management procedures

Bullying effects:

High staff turnover and poor retention with attendant recruitment costs, low morale, absenteeism, lost productivity, management time spent dealing with internal procedures, decline in quality of service, reputational damage, legal costs

Why employees don’t complain about bullying:

Embarrassment, fear of reprisals, fear of losing job, distrust of the employer’s ability to resolve the issue, perception of being a troublemaker, low self-esteem, misplaced sense of guilt, social conditioning.


2 Replies to “Workplace Bullying – Strategies for resolution and avoidance”

  1. Entirely agree with the idea of using mediation in place of grievance processes. A number of employers have already introduced this as an alternative with some very positive outcomes and increases in retention levels. It works when there is adequate training of mediators and complete buy-in from the employer. Training one or two people to mediate and leaving them to sink or swim without adequate support does not work; wholehearted commitment to mediation as an alternative does.

    1. Many thanks for your comment Stephen. The benefits of mediating workplace isssues are many and various. Apart from the the very high success rates and the consequent impact on retention levels, there are massive cost savings from fewer HR and management days spent on investigating, hearing and deciding grievances and appeals and many less obvious benefits such as improvement in morale and productivity and a new culture of openness can even lead to improved innovation because people become empowered to speak up about issues that bother them.

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