The ways leaders can reduce workplace bullying

Organisations are legally required to protect their staff from bullying

Nobody likes being bullied and nobody wants to think of themselves as a bully. And yet, endless reports show that workplace bullying and related behaviours like harassment are all too common in the workplace.

Workplace bullying – what leaders can do

Organisations are legally required to protect their staff from workplace bullying, and failure to do so can lead to employment tribunals and substantial compensation payments. Dealing with bullying is both the right thing to do from a personal integrity point perspective and the right thing to do for your organisation.

One of the best ways of reducing bullying is to be seen to respond to it quickly and fairly. Your colleagues will notice; and those who experience bullying will be more likely to report it earlier, making it easier to deal with. Those with a tendency to bully may well moderate their behaviour anyway.

Respond promptly to feedback about workplace bullying

The most important thing to do if there is a complaint about bullying is to respond quickly. Talk to everyone involved privately first. Make it clear you are committed to resolving the situation and ask colleagues to allow you the time to do that. If those you are talking to want someone else in the room with them, that should be fine. You need to be seen to be handling the situation openly while respecting the privacy of those involved.

Allow the emotion to dissipate

It is likely that when you start your conversations there will be a lot of emotion. Allow the emotion to be expressed for as long as that takes. A successful approach to dealing with emotional colleagues can be as simple as sitting calmly while they speak or expressing how they feel. Sometimes it can be helpful to go for a walk with the person, as the activity will help dissipate the adrenaline flowing from their emotional state. If your colleague wants some time out before discussing what has happened, that is fine too, try to ensure that at least one conversation happens within 24 hours of the complaint, preferably on the same day.

Many people feel awkward when faced with a raised emotional state of a work colleague. Your job is not to stop the emotional response, that is mostly out of your control. Rather you need to find a response to the situation that allows colleagues to maintain their personal dignity and return to work wherever possible.

Suspend your personal opinions about the people involved

You may find yourself taking sides early on, often coloured by your personal opinions about the people involved.  It will help if you try to suspend that judgement. Even if you think the person making the complaint is over-reacting for example, take time to understand the full story from their perspective. Similarly, you may have an opinion about the person accused of bullying, whether that view is positive or negative, you need to understand what is happening. 

Think through the outcomes of the bullying complaint

Once you have heard the stories and feelings of those involved, you need some time to think through the possible outcomes. List the outcomes from ‘everyone apologises and the problem goes away’ through to ‘no-one is happy, other people start to take sides, and maybe even a compensation claim is triggered’. What outcome is the most likely in this situation? What would be the best outcome? What do you and others need to do to deliver the best outcome? If it’s a major issue, you might need help from HR to ensure that your actions are clearly documented should there be complaints in future.

Is bullying a one-off or a systemic issue?

It is all too easy to write off reports of bullying as a single lapse, or ‘the rotten apple’. As a leader at any level in an organisation, it is vital that you understand the scale of bullying within your span of control. Ideally, you should be looking at the potential for bullying to occur before any formal complaints are made. If you have an employee survey then scan it closely for feedback that might indicate bullying. If you don’t have access to hard data, you need to get some more anecdotal feedback.

Take action to reduce systemic bullying

You can take simple actions to reduce systemic bullying right now. As soon as you observe anything that gets near bullying you should give the individual clear and specific feedback that such behaviour is not acceptable. Actions such as refusing to listen to someone’s views, talking over someone frequently, expressing public negative views about an individual, blaming one individual where the responsibility is collective are all on a scale of bullying.

If you feel daunted by giving feedback about potential bullying behaviour to an individual, that is a red flag that bullying is probably happening.

Put workplace bullying on the agenda

Bring some sunlight to the topic. Discuss the potential for bullying in team meetings. Explore what it looks like, and why we shouldn’t accept it. Whatever your seniority as a leader, you can show that you won’t simply look the other way.

Hedda Bird is CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists.

In this article, you learned that:

  • Organisations are legally required to protect their staff from bullying
  • Respond to bullying quickly and fairly might make those who experience it report it earlier
  • Actions like refusing to listen to someone’s views, talking over someone frequently, or expressing public negative views about an individual are all on a scale of bullying
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