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How to tackle workplace bullying?

This article was published in Grapevine magazine in March 2007

Keywords: "workplace bullying, tackling bullying at work, coaching for bullying"

Marielena Sabatier explains how and why organisations should tackle bullying at work.

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)*, one-fifth of all UK employees have been bullied or harassed over the past two years.

Bullying is a commonplace but insidious practice which is, essentially, unwelcome and unwarranted conduct that results in detrimental treatment. The conciliation service Acas defines it as: 'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient'.

In practice, it can involve heavy-handed tactics like physical intimidation, humiliating public reprimands, excess criticism and ridiculing beliefs or personal characteristics. It can also be more subtle, such as failing to give credit when it is due, delegating only menial tasks, nitpicking, name-calling, excluding someone or giving them 'the silent treatment', playing practical jokes on the same person, blocking job opportunities and spreading rumours.

Bullying often stems from a misunderstanding between people. It could also be the result of inexperience, stress-fuelled anger, fatigue or a lack of communication. Some bullies suffer from low self-esteem or feelings of inadequacy. They may have been bullied themselves. They therefore try to cover their own fears, or to win the favour of others, by deflecting attention onto those they perceive as weak or alternatively by undermining someone who has what they want, be that integrity or popularity.

Employers need to be aware that if a person feels undermined or victimised, their confidence, motivation and effectiveness will suffer. Bullying also damages an organisation through increased absenteeism, greater staff turnover, reduced workplace morale and loss of productivity. The corporate reputation can be impacted and financial penalties can stem from litigation.

Countering bullying

Bullies are often cognisant of their behaviour and many will attempt to cover their tracks with a Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde approach of being nasty to their 'victim' but nice to others. This can make it difficult for HR practitioners to recognise there is a problem. Bullying therefore survives and thrives like a hidden virus in the organisation. To counter this, HR practitioners should:

1. Take a strategic approach. Rather than waiting for cases of bullying to arise - by which time the damage may have already been done to 'victims' - HR practitioners should take a proactive approach to create a culture of dignity and respect in the workplace, by actively defining and promoting positive working relationships - and showing employees how to treat each other with respect - rather than simply trying to build a corporate culture where bullying isn't tolerated. Citing the negative mantra that 'We don't tolerate bullying' is not enough. It is critical to focus on the positive behaviours that are required to succeed in the organisation, such as respect, honesty and clear and open communication.

2. Ensure policies are in place. Organisations should have workable policies and practices that support an anti-bullying ethos and discourage inappropriate behaviour. Dealing promptly and effectively with any instances of bullying or harassment will demonstrate the organisation's intolerance of such behaviour. Guidance on developing effective policies is available in the CIPD's highly recommended guide Bullying at Work*.

3. Provide training. It is not enough simply to introduce policies. Staff need to be educated on what the policies mean and what behaviour the organisation deems unacceptable. Organisations should provide an awareness training programme for all staff in which the appropriate ways of behaving are clearly communicated, promoted and supported.

The training should promote a culture where employees are treated with dignity and respect. It should provide guidance on the support available for anyone who believes they are being treated unfairly.

As well as awareness training, HR should consider introducing training in other areas such as anger management, communication skills, assertiveness, conflict management and giving and receiving feedback.

4. Help senior managers lead by example. If a cultural change towards dignity and respect is to be effective, then senior managers must set the example. A specific workshop should be run for the senior team to remind them of their responsibilities and ensure they buy into the concept of respect. The training should ensure that senior managers have a clear vision and a sense of what a culture of dignity and respect would be like in practice.

5. Introduce 360 degree feedback. Line managers need to be able to recognise signs of bullying, such as a drop in performance, inability to concentrate, loss of confidence or withdrawal. Utilising 360 degree feedback can help to identify a bully in hiding. Potential bullies may be the ones who are control-orientated, who have a rigid way of thinking and don't see anyone else's point of view or who are constantly blaming others or using excuses to explain why targets have not been met.

6. Make it clear what employees can do if they are being bullied. Employees who are being bullied or harassed need to know how to complain - and they must feel reassured that they won't be victimised if they do. Organisations could introduce a 'buddy system' (an anti-bullying advocate or at least someone an employee can talk to informally) or they could open up access to HR. Any complaints should be treated with sympathy and confidentiality.

7. Provide the same level of care to the bully as to the accuser. Organisations should aim to provide support for those accused of bullying. Some people are so driven by the task or challenge that they are unaware of their behaviour. They may have very little emotional intelligence. Some line managers have an autocratic management style. Others occasionally become aggressive or snappy under stress. For these people, an accusation of bullying can come as a shock.

Organisations should provide coaching to help bullies modify their behaviour. Coaching can also help individuals with issues such as aggression, lack of confidence and low self esteem.

8. Focus on employee well-being. Organisations should consider introducing stress management workshops, stress counselling and holistic treatments such as massage and reflexology. Staff should also be encouraged to take regular breaks and exercise. By reducing stress in the workplace, these initiatives may help to treat the symptoms of the problem.

Bullying is cruel and disrespectful and there are legal, moral, social and economic reasons why it should not be tolerated in organisations. Everyone - whether you're a bully, a victim or a bystander - should work together to stamp it out.

Marielena Sabatier is co-founder of coaching and leadership development firm Inspiring Potential.

* How engaged are British employees?, CIPD survey carried out by Kingston Business School, Kingston University, and MORI, 2006.

* Bullying at Work, N. Tehrani, CIPD, 2005. This can be downloaded free from www.cipd.co.uk/guides

If you are being bullied:

• Acknowledge the bully, explain how their behaviour is affecting you and how you would prefer them to behave.

• Validate your own performance and don't just accept what people tell you. Ask yourself, is this invalid criticism or constructive feedback? If you have heard it before, try and do something about it. Learn to see it as behaviour. It is about the bully not about you.

• Keep a written record of instances.

• Build your own self confidence.

• Be assertive with the bully and tell them to stop.

• Try to change the way you deal with the bully, for example use written communication in preference to face-to-face meetings where possible.

• Ask colleagues how they manage to deal with the person concerned.

• Check with HR if you are unsure about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

• If all else fails, ask for formal help from HR.

For further information about how an Inspiring Potential coach can assist with bullying and harassment issues in your organisation, please contact us.

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