Managing Workplace Bullying and Harassment

Each one of us will likely experience an issue with a work colleague at some stage during our career. You might think it inevitable, what with a good few hours of our days spent working, whether it’s from a physical workspace or a home office – and the latter just as likely a place for conflict to arise.

In fact, during the Covid-19 pandemic – a time when many of us have found ourselves working from a remote location – workplace bullying and harassment is said to have risen dramatically. Perhaps it’s no surprise when you consider the upheaval caused these past twelve months, with lives forced to adapt to new ways of working at speed or even to drop their work altogether through being furloughed. It’s no wonder stress is on the increase and the most level-headed of humans are seeing their patience tested like never before.

Still, despite the pressures we’re feeling at work currently – even in pre (and post) Covid times – there is no excuse for workplace bullying, and every employer has a duty of care to its staff in terms of their wellbeing. But what exactly do we mean by bullying? It’s worth reminding ourselves since some employees may not even recognise a situation as one where they’re being bullied; and similarly, might fail to see their behaviour toward a colleague as unacceptable.

The Government defines bullying and harassment as “…behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated or offended”, with harassment unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 (you can read more on this topic here). It can take on many forms – offensive or insulting comments, spreading malicious rumours, misuse of power, and threats or even acts of physical abuse.

While the workplace will always be a place where opinions differ or relationships turn sour, it is essential you have a mechanism in place for managing difficulties and preventing harassment and bullying from becoming something that ‘just happens’. Here’s how.

Create a workplace bullying and harassment policy 

Just as you have policies in place for other essentials across your business – for health and safety, absence, and equal opportunities – you’ll need one for anti-bullying and harassment, either in stand-alone form or as a component within another policy such as a Code of Conduct Policy. While the document needn’t be war and peace, the content must at minimum be clear on the following points:

  • What you class as bullying or harassment within your organisation (and refer to the Government’s Equality Act 2010 to validate the legalities around harassment)
  • How you intend to deal with bullying and harassment
  • The steps to follow if an employee feels any bullying or harassment toward them

Above all else, it’s your responsibility as an employer to make your staff aware of the policy document and how to obtain a copy.

Let your team know your thoughts on bullying. 

Most companies have a mechanism for on-boarding staff, where information on procedures and compulsory training is delivered to new starts. While this provides a great opportunity to explain your policy against bullying and harassment, it should never end there. Posting infographics on the walls around the building, particularly in break out areas, is another opportunity to ensure your message stays in people’s minds both to help prevent untoward behaviour and to remind staff of what to do if and when any bullying occurs.

Assign a pair of supporting ears. 

Now, while some employees will feel comfortable raising concerns around bullying directly with their line manager, plenty will feel unable to do so; certainly, when it’s their manager who is posing an issue to them. Provide a point of contact for your team to approach with any concerns around bullying or harassment, preferably, someone you feel they will see as someone they can trust – ideally, an HR professional. If you’re a larger organisation, you may have an internal HR team with specific HR professionals who pick up these issues.  If you don’t have that resource internally, is there a leader in the organisation who takes that responsibility. Whoever takes on the role, make sure your staff knows who they are and how to make contact with them whenever necessary.

Shine a spotlight on virtual bullying and harassment.

HR professionals and business leaders know how bullying takes places across different formats but understandably, your staff might be less savvy than you, seeing only physical face-to-face confrontations as an issue. Most, if not all, businesses use email and internal messaging to communicate internally and it is here where much untoward behaviour occurs. Similarly, virtual meeting spaces such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meets are prime places for belittling of colleagues, often without anyone realizing they have behaved inappropriately toward a colleague. By providing your employees with the knowledge or specific training around cyber-bullying, you’ll help everyone to recognize the virtual world is no different to the physical one in terms of acceptable behaviour with all team members responsible for their actions towards others.

Always remember your staff wellbeing lies at the heart of a winning culture. Look after your team well, and the rest of the business will look after itself.

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