Barely a week goes by without reports of employees being harangued and harassed by ‘bullying’ bosses at work. No sector appears to be immune from the rise of the toxic culture – the police, hospitals, financial services, retail and media outlets are among the industries to hit the headlines in recent months.
Recent CIPD research suggests that 15% of employees in the UK have experienced bullying over the past three years, with 8% reporting harassment and 4% sexual harassment.
Meanwhile, an analysis by law firm Fox and Partners found that the number of employment tribunal claims citing allegations of bullying jumped by 44% across 2021/2.
The statistics are alarming, but I am not convinced they are painting a true picture of what is happening in our workplaces. My experience suggests the situation is not as black and white as the figures suggest, because in over 30 years of mediating in cases where bullying has been alleged, I have rarely come across a true example of ‘bullying’.
What I have found instead is miscommunication, misperceptions and an alarming lack of ability among managers to have meaningful, compassionate and collaborative conversations with their teams.
Here’s what I think is going wrong – and what we need to do to try and fix it.
A complex situation
It goes without saying that there are people who have suffered huge emotional and mental torment at the hands of a genuine workplace bully. There should be no hiding places for these ‘bad actors’, who cause enormous harm and distress to those around them.
In the absence of the behavioural frameworks and boundaries that are lacking in so many organisations, people quickly fall into a victim/perpetrator mindset.
Organisations need to root them out rapidly and, where a process of driving deep behavioural change doesn’t work, show them the door.
When we analyse the mediation and investigation cases that come through our doors, however, we rarely find that we are dealing with the stereotypical ‘bully’ who sets out deliberately to make their chosen victim suffer.
The problem starts with the language we use around bullying. We use the word ‘bully’ liberally to describe the complex interactions we have with each other at work.
We don’t have the lexicon to verbalise the shades of grey that exist in nearly all situations where relationships with colleagues or managers have broken down.
In the absence of the behavioural frameworks and boundaries that are lacking in so many organisations, people quickly fall into a victim/perpetrator mindset when a difficult work issue arises and communication becomes terse and irritable.
Poor performance management
Take the performance management conversation, which is the catalyst for many bullying allegations.
Let’s say a manager has a problem with an employee whose work is falling below standard. They know they need to address the issue, but they struggle to articulate their concerns and shape a constructive conversation.
Often, this is because they have never been trained in how to give feedback effectively and work collaboratively with others to carve out a supportive path towards improvement.
Sometimes, it is because they are frightened that if they give robust feedback, they will be on the end of a potentially career-damaging allegation of bullying – and they have no confidence that if that does happen, they will be dealt with fairly.
A communications vacuum
If this situation is left unaddressed, frustration sets in and the manager’s desire to give feedback starts to leak out in indirect and unhelpful ways. Snide comments emerge, snippy emails get sent, and before too long behaviour descends into irritable or angry outbursts when the poor performance causes yet another issue.
For many people, the experience of the formal HR process for tackling bullying has a more traumatic impact than the behaviours that gave rise to the procedure.
The person on the receiving end of this gets upset and affronted – even if in their heart of hearts, they know their performance is probably lacking and they need help to get back on track. They often crave constructive feedback and they want to develop.
In this communication vacuum, where challenging but necessary conversations are just not taking place, the employee perceives the behaviour as bullying and raises a formal complaint.
Damaging HR procedures
It is at this point that the situation goes seriously downhill. The organisation’s traditional grievance, bullying and harassment procedure (I call it GBH) is invoked, immediately plunging both parties into a destructive, adversarial and retributive process, where the focus is on right/wrong, win/lose, blame/shame.
These stressful, costly and lengthy procedures cause untold stress and damage to people’s mental and physical health, damage relationships beyond repair and rarely solve anything.
For many people, the experience of the formal HR process for tackling bullying has a more traumatic impact than the behaviours that gave rise to the procedure being invoked. The paradox can’t be overstated.
The way these HR processes are framed also encourages organisations to see bullying as a binary issue. An employee has alleged they have been bullied – ergo their manager must be a bully.
This can be a dangerous situation, as graphically illustrated recently by the high profile Lucy Letby case.
Media reports suggest that in an attempt to cover up her harmful behaviour, the nurse accused consultants who had raised concerns about her of bullying and victimisation. Senior management took her word above the doctors, brushing their concerns under the carpet, reportedly because of concerns about damage to the hospital’s reputation.
This tragic case is of course an extreme example, but it illustrates just how important it is to dig beneath the surface of bullying allegations, genuinely listen to all parties concerned and not take any situation at face value.
An alternative approach
Forward-looking organisations, including Burberry, Aviva and TSB, have recognised that our traditional, binary HR processes are no longer fit for purpose in today’s complex, modern-day workplace.
Instead, they have embraced over-arching Resolution Frameworks – an alternative approach which centres around restorative, rather than retributive approaches to workplace justice.
Attempting to prop up already broken formal systems with yet more additions and amendments isn’t the answer.
The Resolution Framework is a people-centred, values-driven approach which gives dialogue and early resolution of issues primacy. It allows organisations to spot issues early on, and tackle them at source, using a powerful triage system to direct people down the appropriate route to resolution.
Those routes might include facilitated conversations, coaching or mediation – and for more serious issues, could include formal action, leading to possible dismissal.
It is a highly successful and legally compliant approach, which is attracting a groundswell of interest not just among organisations and people and culture teams, but also by the legal teams that support them.
Why more legislation won’t work
Anti-bullying campaigners are hanging much hope for improvement on the proposed Bullying and Respect at Work Bill, which is at the early stages of being read in Parliament. If it becomes law, it would become mandatory for businesses to set up formal mechanisms for reporting and investigations.
It would allow employment tribunals to hear workplace bullying claims and introduce a new ‘respect at work’ code.
I have the utmost respect for people who are passionate about trying to find a solution to the harm that is being caused to people within organisations, and I hope that when the details of the proposed legislation emerge, there will be a strong emphasis on mediation and restorative justice.
My fear, however, is that reliance on dealing with issues of alleged bullying through legislative means will detract organisations from the real work – that of creating psychologically safe spaces where people can address issues that arise at work in a compassionate and collaborative way. Attempting to prop up already broken formal systems with yet more additions and amendments isn’t the answer.
Time for HR to take action
We cannot rely on the state to manage these intricate workplace relationships that exist in our offices, wards, depots and retail outlets. Their tendrils can’t reach into the complex, grey areas of feelings, hopes, needs, goals and aspirations.
This is a pivotal moment for HR, who have a significant role to play in building organisational cultures that are centred around openness, fairness, inclusion and respect.
They can either sit back, absolve responsibility and expect a broken policy framework or emerging legislation to do the heavy lifting for them – or they can take a proactive approach to creating happy, healthy and harmonious workplaces where people are confident to speak up, safe in the knowledge that whichever side of the bullying spectrum they sit, they will be taken seriously and treated fairly.
If you enjoyed this, read: Six ways to spot and stop potential bullying behaviour.