Bullying and harassment might traditionally be linked to the playground, but
these issues are now recognised as real problems in the workplace. Research
shows that more than one in five of UK employees has been bullied at least once
in the past year.
There is also worrying new evidence that victims of bullying feel unable to
report these incidents or other unethical behaviour witnessed in a work
A recent Mercer survey reveals that 20% of staff do not feel free to report
instances of harassment. Furthermore, 14% feel unable to report dishonest or
unethical behaviour, and 60% of staff feel they are treated without dignity and
respect, regardless of their position or background. Collectively, this evidence
points towards a work culture defined by fear and lack of respect.
The survey covered a cross-section of more than 1,100 UK workers of different
grade levels. When extrapolated to the whole UK workforce, the findings suggest
there could be several million individuals who are too intimidated to report
Mercer’s research reveals differences in the incidence of bullying across
industry sectors, with the highest found in the public healthcare sector where
almost three in 10 report they have been bullied. This is consistent with recent
research by the British Medical Association. Its study reveals a culture of
staff bullying as hospital managers battle to hit the government’s pledge to
treat A&E patients within four hours and to achieve their bonuses.
This research demonstrates the scope of the problem, but how important is
this issue? According to the Health & Safety Executive, employers lose 80
million working days and up to £2bn in revenue every year as a result of
bullying. If a case goes to an employment tribunal, employers face financial
penalties and possibly irreparable damage to reputation.
But perhaps the greatest indirect cost is from reduced employee performance.
Clearly, bullying and harassment will lead to a less engaged workforce. It is
now widely accepted bullying affects customer relations and sales activity,
which quickly impacts on an organisation’s financial performance.
Mercer’s research indicates UK workers rate ‘being treated with respect’ as
the most important factor influencing their commitment and motivation at work –
more important than pay, benefits or promotional opportunities.
Those who have not been exposed to the corrosive effects of workplace
harassment may be incredulous that this problem persists. This is one of the
root causes of the problem – harassment is often a hidden issue, unknown even to
senior managers. In a climate of fear, employees do not report the problem and
harassment continues in private.
The first effective step in tackling the problem is for employers to measure
the extent of harassment in their organisation through a confidential employee
survey. The survey should be broad and cover a full range of topics. This gives
balanced results and avoids an obvious focus on harassment, which can lead to
over-reporting. More generally, a well-designed survey process can build
employee confidence by showing that an organisation is willing to respond to
Another reason why bullying persists in the modern workplace is that some
organisations find it difficult to distinguish harassment from tough management.
In the absence of a clear policy, some managers push the boundaries of
acceptable behaviour. In these cases, organisations can find themselves caught
in the middle of a sensitive dispute that is difficult and time consuming to
Organisations have to aim to prevent potential problems by clarifying the
types of behaviour that will not be tolerated. There is no easy solution.
However, formulating clear statements about harassment can help companies manage
bullying. The statements should be underpinned by a written policy with examples
of unacceptable behaviour.
Bullying, by definition, can include a variety of behaviours ranging from
rude and discourteous treatment, threats and intimidation to out-and-out
physical abuse. The Andrea Adams Trust, a charity committed to preventing
workplace harassment, defines bullying as ‘an abuse of power or position that
can cause such anxiety that people gradually lose all belief in themselves’. The
inevitably subjective element in the definition will therefore always require
sensitive management to resolve problems.
Interestingly, it is clear that bullying is not confined to employees lower
down the organisational hierarchy. Mercer’s research shows 24% of middle
managers and 17% of senior managers have been bullied at least once in the
previous year. The high rate of bullying among managers is a particular area of
concern. If managers are the victims of bullying, they are more likely in turn
to bully the people they manage.
Being accused of inappropriate behaviour in the workplace can, of course, be
very distressing for the perpetrators, so these situations must be handled in a
sensitive and constructive manner. Soft-skills training should be considered for
their development. Emotional intelligence training, for example, can help
individuals understand their emotions, those of people around them and how their
behaviour can affect others.
There are various tools available to occupational psychologists to assist
with management development programmes. These include 360º feedback and
psychometric tests, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, which help
employees understand each others’ working styles and highlight that different
ways of working can be equally effective.
Workplace bullying is an important issue that can be extremely costly to both
individuals and employers. Organisations should provide guidance to employees on
unacceptable behaviour and also actively promote a culture of openness where
employees can speak up without fear. Our experience is that taking appropriate
steps to resolve bullying and harassment can reduce the cost of lost working
days and damaged reputation while boosting employee morale.
Chris Rawlinson is a senior consultant and David Tong is European
principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting
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