Bullying in the workplace

Created on: 02 Aug 2023 | Last modified: 09 Nov 2023

What is Bullying?

The most widely used definition of bullying at work is as follows:

“Persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, abuse of power or unfair penal sanctions which makes the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated or vulnerable which undermines their self-confidence and which may cause them to suffer stress.”

As strong as these words may be they do not convey the sense of devastation of an individual, family and friends which can result from workplace bullying.

Examples of bullying behaviour are:

  • intimidation and aggression

  • withholding information

  • setting impossible deadlines or tasks

  • disparaging comments or remarks, often in front of others

  • blocking promotion or staff development opportunities

  • constantly changing objectives and goals

  • taking credit for others achievements or initiatives

  • constantly changing the remits and responsibilities of others

  • isolating certain individuals and limiting consultation on important issues

This is not an exhaustive list. There is a whole range of subtle, insidious behaviour which may constitute bullying. This behaviour can be directed at individuals one at a time or groups of individuals. People are too afraid of becoming the next target to do anything to support the person being bullied. They may be afraid also that a complaint will be construed as an inability to cope. A number of factors combine to make it difficult to challenge. It is possible that bullying has become institutionalised through badly formed and ill thought out procedures used to monitor workplace performance e.g. an ill-conceived development planning process.

It is not possible to make a direct complaint to an Employment Tribunal about bullying as it is not related to a protected characteristic.

Cases of bullying may be covered by Health and Safety at Work legislation. Health and Safety at Work legislation places a duty of care on employers, as far as is reasonably practicable, to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as “the adverse reaction a person has to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them”. In Tackling work-related stress HSE reminds employers that looking after the health of employees includes “taking steps to make sure that employees do not suffer stress-related illness as a result of work”. Further information can be obtain from the HSE website at http://www.hse.gov.uk/stress/

Behaviour which is a criminal act should be reported to the police.

Bullying is Poor Management

There are many reasons for this type of behaviour. It may in part be due to the personality of the bully. Often it is attributable to a workplace culture which provides organisational justification for this type of behaviour.

Workplaces where bullying is likely to occur have certain characteristics which may include the following:

  • insecure, aggressive management

  • organisational change and uncertainty

  • envy fostered among colleagues

  • lack of respect for people’s work or opinions

  • lack of opportunity or a forum to voice opinions collectively

  • fear of alternative views

  • poor working relationships

  • excessive, demanding workloads

  • no opportunity to discuss or resolve problems

  • insecurity deliberately fostered

Effects of Bullying

On the individual

Workplace bullying can lead to an individual’s health being destroyed, family life ruined and career ended.

Leading experts on stress suggest the effects of bullying can be to produce symptoms similar to those suffered by trauma victims. Stress can cause a variety of physical and emotional symptoms such as

  • headaches

  • nausea

  • high blood pressure

  • sleeplessness

  • loss of appetite

  • anxiety

  • panic attacks

  • depression

  • irritability

  • aggression

  • abuse of or increased use of alcohol, tobacco, drugs

These symptoms often lead to further more serious physical and mental health problems not only for the victim but the victim’s family.

On the organisation/workplace

People working in a hostile environment or who are fearful and resentful do not work well. The result may be an increase in the rate of short term and long term absences and deterioration in quality of work and commitment. All of the systems which operate to make a good working environment break down. Teaching and learning suffer.

The behaviour, if left unchecked, may lead to grievance and disciplinary procedures being used thus increasing stress in the workplace. There may also be recourse to remedy in law which is time consuming and costly to both employer and employee.