It is anti-bullying week and a school bully can sometimes be simple to identify but an adult workplace bully can be a lot harder to spot. Is someone simply a hard-to-please-boss like The Devil Wears Prada's fashion editor Miranda Priestly or are they actually exhibiting bullying behaviour?
It's very easy to define bullies based on fictional characters such as Mr Burns from the Simpsons, Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It, Biff from Back to the Future or Darth Vader from Star Wars. They may epitomise bullying but they are extreme caricatures. They yell, swear and in some instances display violence but bullying can encompass a wider range of behaviours and actions that may not be as obvious.
Many years ago, I worked in the press office at a high profile organisation. To protect its name, I'll refer to it as the Death Star... Things went well at first and I earned a good track record. But three managers in (turnover was quite high there), everything changed. Under my new manager, Phasma (not her real name), I suddenly discovered that I was no longer trusted with my work, information was not being relayed to me and I was constantly undermined. There was an instance when I had written a press notice and Phasma demanded that I change the heading of the release to something she wanted instead - I duly obliged. She then showed the new heading to her line manager as an example of incompetence. It was awful.
I began to constantly question my own competence. I doubted myself, I became under confident, my Jedi-like zen dissipated, I was no longer cheerful and I dreaded going to work every day. Phasma made life very difficult and when the opportunity arose to move to a different a team, I enthusiastically took it up. My new line manager was amazing, praised my performance, we had regular one-to-ones and I was much happier and productive in my new team as a result. I've got on amazingly well with all my managers and senior management in subsequent workplaces and before that terrible time too.
At Acas, I've learned to understand more about bullying and harassment from the advice and guidance we offer. The two terms are interchangeable and can include behaviours such as excluding people; unfair treatment; overbearing supervision; deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism; preventing individuals progressing by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities; and spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone by word or behaviour (this can include demeaning someone, picking on them or setting them up to fail). I had experienced some of the above at the Death Star and they may not be the most obvious types of behaviours or actions that come to mind when you think about the term 'bullying'.
Acas released a study last year that looked at workplace bullying. It revealed that workplace bullying is growing in Britain and it is more likely to be found in organisations that have poor workplace climates where bullying behaviours can become institutionalised.
It would be wrong to assume that bullying isn't a big deal or only affects one or two people. The Acas helpline deals with 20,000 calls every year related to bullying and harassment. Concerns raised by callers included:
• Barriers to people making complaints such as the fear that trying to do something about unwanted behaviour might make the situation worse;
• Ill-treatment from other staff often built up to the point where people dreaded going to work, their family and home life had been affected and many took leave to escape the workplace;
• Inexperienced employers can feel they lack the skills to go through complex grievance and disciplinary procedures that bullying allegations may involve; and
• Managers alerted to bullying allegations can favour simply moving staff around rather than investigating and dealing with underlying behaviours.
It is seems obvious that bad management can allow bullying to fester. A boss or a manager with a strongly autocratic style can grate with everyone but our study also found that passive leadership can be the most destructive type of management style where managers avoid dealing with conflict - as this can create a fertile ground for bullying.
There are clear business benefits to tackling bullying as studies have shown that the annual economic impact of bullying-related absences, staff turnover and lost productivity is estimated to be almost £18 billion.
Bullying is in the eye of the beholder so it would be wrong of me to be very prescriptive on how to deal with every instance of bullying at work as every situation will be different. Having a set of rules and standards of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and senior leaders acting as role models for these standards would be a good start.
Anti-bullying workplace policies and managers with good people management skills are essential and it's important to have a positive workplace climate so that people have the confidence to report bullying when it happens.
For more information or if any of the above information looks familiar then please do check out Acas' guides online, together with our research paper: www.acas.org.uk/bullying
Disclaimer: some of the original names of people and organisations within this piece have been replaced with fictional Star Wars references to protect their identities...