Bullying in the Workplace

A topic that I’ve been discussing a lot with other HR colleagues recently is bullying in the workplace. I’m not absolutely sure why there seems to be an increase, but that is certainly the feedback I’m getting.

Bullying is an avoidable source of complaint, and one that can potentially cost employers a lot of money. Of course, I might also argue that bullying is a very overworked term, one that is used because managers are trying to manage and the person they are trying to manage doesn’t like it. I’ve dealt with a number of cases like that, but genuine bullying does still exist.

Ok, what is bullying? How can it be avoided? And what do you do when you receive an allegation?

There are lots of definitions of bullying, depending on where you look, but they include:

• Use of superior strength or influence to intimidate someone, usually to force them to do something;
• The use of force, threat or coercion to abuse or intimidate others, often repeatedly and habitual.
• A distinctive pattern of deliberately harming or humiliating others.

These variations in definition conspire to make it difficult to be sure that an allegation has any merit. What, then, to do when you receive an allegation of bullying or harassment?

Do nothing is not an option. In my experience, these issues do not go away; at best, they fester over time and build resentment that eventually explodes; at worst, staff go sick early on, thus costing the business more money, and potentially leading to Employment Tribunals.

Some forms of bullying are [reasonably] overt – name-calling, shouting, unwarranted or excessive criticism, setting someone up to fail, overloading someone with work, excluding someone from any events, withholding information. This is not an exhaustive list.

Covert, or at least, harder to pin down, forms of bullying might be not inviting someone to a social event, excluding someone from conversations (and this might be just discussing a particular television programme, but equally, it might not). By their very definition, these types of bullying are harder to pin down.

What should you do if someone brings an allegation of bullying to your door? Try to remain objective, especially if the complaint is about you personally or someone senior to you. It can be very distressing to have someone label you a bully, and you may need to do some serious self-reflection privately to see whether there is any merit in the accusation. If so, an apology early on can work wonders in setting things right. Even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, and the person making the allegation agrees, you might still be able to resolve things by having an informal chat to try to get to the bottom of the issue. If you feel more comfortable, have a mediator or an impartial third party present to try to keep things from getting too heated. Whatever you do, don’t get into an argument. It really isn’t worth it.

If the accusation is against someone senior to you, and you know that they’ve done this kind of thing before (it happens!) you’re potentially in a tough position but this too, can be dealt with if you remain calm.

Hopefully, you will already know what your organisation’s policy is in relation to bullying – if not, check it out asap, you don’t want to muddy the waters by getting the process wrong. It might be advisable to ask the person making the allegation to wait while you do this, but play that by ear. If they are very upset, that might not be appropriate but they also need to know what the policy and procedure is and what they want and what they can expect. If your organisation doesn’t have a policy, check out the ACAS guidelines:


If your policy allows you to take the initial record of the allegation, get as much information as possible from the person making the allegation: dates, times, places, what was said, in what context, details of any witnesses. And anything else that seems relevant. Make sure that you check any timescales listed in the policy and be sure to keep the person informed of your progress. I’ve seen so many complaints escalate because the person just thought they were being ignored.

The next thing to do is to involve your HR unit if you have one, or someone like me, if you don’t, so that they can be on hand to assist if necessary. If the person complained of is senior to you, you will either have to go to them directly or go above their head. Either way, it’s unlikely to be something that you can deal with. If not, the person complained of needs to be spoken to, to get their version of events. Remember, at this stage, this is all very informal, unless your policy dictates otherwise.

This is potentially where it all gets tricky: when the two versions of events don’t accord. You may have no choice but to instigate your organisation’s grievance procedure, which will mean some sort of more formal investigation. I know people don’t always like this, but I always tell managers who’ve been accused of something that they are adamant they didn’t do that it is the only way to clear their name.

Remember that we are all human and we all sometimes say and do things that we don’t mean and that the way the other person interprets our communication is the measure of its effectiveness. If you, or someone else, has been snarky, admit it.

Ultimately, you can only do what you can do. It may be, that even after a thorough investigation, there is no evidence to support the allegation, in which case, the complainant has to decide whether they want to stay working for the company. Relationships sometimes break down and they may put in a claim for an Employment Tribunal.

This post was first published on SAS HR Ltd in November 2015

© Susan Shirley HR and Coaching Ltd 2016