A guide to dealing with workplace bullying

Workplace bullying can take on different forms, including verbal or written, cyber bullying.

In a survey conducted by the charity Family Lives, almost three-quarters (73%) of those surveyed who had experienced bullying at work said that the bullying was verbal and included threats, while a similarly high proportion (60%) felt the bullying was social, for example being excluded, ignored and isolated. More than a third of employees who had experienced bullying said that it continued for over a year.

Dealing with all types of bullying behaviour quickly and effectively is key for employers to restore morale, productivity and attendance within their organisation and maintaining positive work relationships between employees and managers alike.

In this guide, Peter Done, MD of employment law specialists, Peninsula Business Services explains how to spot, and tackle any instances of bullying in your small business;

Taking a firm stance on bullying in your business

It is important that employers take a no tolerance approach regarding bullying and harassment within the workplace and to do this they should have a workplace policy covering all forms of bullying.

Although this would seem a fundamental starting point for many employers, it seems the message is still not hitting home: a poll of more than 1,500 workers found that 91 per cent felt their organisation did not deal with bullying at work adequately.

Employers have a general duty of care for their employees and they should ensure that staff are not experiencing any form of bullying.

This duty extends to bullying by a person who is not employed by that employer, such as a client. It also requires the employer to take actions to ensure that this behaviour ceases, for example, they should warn the client that this behaviour will not be tolerated.

Variations of bullying

Sometimes, even bullying which occurs outside of work may require actions from the employer. This is bullying which can be linked to the course of employment, for example if it takes place using workplace equipment.

A company’s bullying policy should prevent bullying and harassment from taking place on work premises during work hours, as well as, outside work times and even away from work premises.

Cyber bullying is often harder to notice than verbal bullying, as it hides behind the subtle means of technology and takes place behind a screen, which allows this kind of bullying to continue after the working day has ended.

Offensive emails during work can also be seen as a form of cyber bullying, although the sender may think that the content will not cause offence.

In cases where bullying occurs between a manager and an employee, the employee may find it difficult to alert someone about the unwelcome behaviour, as they may think that no one will believe them, they may not trust other managers or fear that it will only worsen the situation.

In the poll by Family Life, 43% of those who said they have been bullied reported that they were bullied by their line manager; 38% by a colleague and 20% by a senior manager or chief executive.

It is important to encourage all employees to report any unwanted behaviour and assert that workplace policies apply equally to everyone regardless of their job position.

Dealing with a bullying complaint

If an employee complains that they are subjected to bullying, the employer should investigate the allegations without unnecessary delay.

If the employee submits a bullying complaint through the formal grievance, then the employer should follow their standard grievance procedure and comply with the timeframes outlined there. The employer should be aware that actions, no matter how mere, may be perceived as hostile depending on the person they are aimed at.

It is important to note that harassment is defined as creating a hostile, degrading and intimidating environment for someone in relation to a protected characteristic such as age, disability, race, sex, sexual orientation or religious belief. It concerns the way the behaviour is perceived by the receiver and not the intention behind it, even if the employer does not agree that the intentions behind the actions were malicious.

Sometimes the employee experiencing the alleged bullying may ask the employer not to address the issue with the bully directly, however, it would be difficult to carry out a sufficiently comprehensive investigation without speaking to the alleged perpetrator.

It may be possible to resolve the allegations in an informal way and this option should be given to the complainant, but they still have the right to choose the more formal procedure if they wish.

Holding an investigation

Investigations into bullying are likely to contain investigatory meetings with those directly involved, and also any witnesses to the alleged behaviour. Employers should explain that there has been some allegations of bullying, and try to get as much information as possible to build a picture of what has happened.

Sometimes, the person alleged of bullying may not be aware that their conduct is perceived in that way and just an informal meeting may resolve the issue. They may see it as a joke and believe that the other people will also find it humorous, but stop their behaviour when they discover that it has caused offence to others.

After the investigation, if the employer finds the allegations to be substantiated, it is likely that some action will be required to be taken against the perpetrator. The level of the sanction should be appropriate to the seriousness of the bullying; it may be a verbal warning is fitting but in cases of very serious bullying, dismissal may be the only option.

Disciplinary sanctions should not be given unless a proper disciplinary procedure has been carried out, so, once the complaint of bullying has been dealt with, a disciplinary procedure should then begin. ByteStart’s Guide on How to handle disciplinary issues in the workplace will help you get this right.

Mediation as a tool for resolution

More and more employers are using alternative dispute resolution procedures, including mediation for instances of bullying. Mediation is completely voluntary and the individuals must be given the choice of whether they want to participate.

It should not take the place of a disciplinary procedure where this is required, however, can be used instead of or subsequent to a grievance procedure related to bullying although not likely to be appropriate for serious instances of bullying.

Mediation brings the parties together to talk to each other in an attempt to deal with the emotional issues of the behaviour, and allows the individuals themselves to come to an agreed resolution for how to move forward.

This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Peter Done, Managing Director of Peninsula Business Services – the UK’s leading specialist Employment Law, HR and Health & Safety service.

Last updated: 21st December, 2021

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