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Training to tackle bullies. By Dawn Smith

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Smiling crowd Workplace bullying is a serious problem for employers, who risk lengthy and expensive tribunals, unmotivated staff and a poor company reputation if they don't tackle the problem. Dawn Smith looks at how training can help employers deal with bullying in the workplace.

 


Employers are waking up to the fact that bullying in the workplace is widespread, and that its effects on employees' wellbeing and on the organisation’s performance is severe.

A whole raft of recent research has highlighted the prevalence and impact of workplace bullying. As reported recently on HR Zone, a survey by the Chartered Management Institute, released to coincide with Ban Bullying at Work Day, showed that 71 percent of managers spend time dealing with the problem, and almost two-thirds believe that workplace bullying is increasingly common across the UK. Research from the TUC showed a similar trend, with 15 percent of union safety reps surveyed saying that bullying is a major problem in their workplace, compared with 10 percent in 2002. An earlier survey from Peninsula indicated that 81 percent of employees had been bullied at work.

Research from the victims' point of view, conducted by the Andrea Adams Trust – the charity behind Ban Bullying Day – suggests that workplace bullying affects people in different ways. "The most commonly cited effects are worry about going to work, and a lowering of self-esteem and self-confidence," says the Trust's National Workplace Bullying Survey, conducted between March 2005 and May 2006. "It also has an impact on performance. 60 percent of respondents say that it has affected the quality of their work, and 51 percent say that it has caused them to take time off."

The buck stops at the top

Although individuals are the perpetrators of bullying, most people view employers as being responsible for the phenomenon. More than a third of respondents in the Chartered Management Institute survey blamed their organisation for being ineffective at deterring bullying. The courts are increasingly taking the same view. As well as costly tribunal claims, organisations face potential court proceedings if they fail to deal with the problem.

In the William Majrowski case this summer, the Law Lords ruled that employers are liable for bullying and harassment in the workplace even if they are not negligent – and even if they don't know it's happening. The ruling means that an employee can bring a claim against their employer under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, and no longer have to prove that the employer was negligent in not stopping the bullying, or that the bullying caused them psychological damage.

In another historic case this summer, Helen Green successfully sued her former employer Deutsche Bank after being consistently bullied by colleagues, and was awarded £817,000 damages in the High Court. Says Lyn Witheridge, Chief Executive of the Andrea Adams Trust, making senior managers aware of the legal consequences is a sure way to obtain their 'buy in' to any anti-bullying training programme: "When they realise they could go to jail, that usually gets their attention".

Culture shock

Kevin Young, Managing Director at SkillSoft – which has developed free e-learning courses on workplace bullying – believes that tackling bullying starts with a general recognition of the scale of the problem. "The issue is sometimes hidden under the carpet," he says, "But it is a phenomenon that exists – not in every organisation, but in every sector and type of organisation."

It's also important to recognise that the root of the problem lies deep within the organisation. Says Lyn Witheridge: "People in authority need to recognise that it's about the organisation's culture. The company has to have an effective and agreed policy and procedures on bullying. That is the most effective way of dealing with it."

But training is the key to making that policy effective, she adds. "The company has a responsibility to communicate that policy, and to use training to promote it. The amount of money that many companies are prepared to spend on training to tackle bullying is minimal compared to their corporate income or the costs of a court case."

In the corporate training provided by the Andrea Adams Trust, the process often begins with a one-day training session for the senior board, to make them aware of bulling and its consequences. "Often, senior managers don't think there is a problem within their organisation. They say there's no bullying, it's just strong management. We need to start with an understanding of the problem."

The organisation may then select and train employees to be harassment advisers, or "first point contact advisers" for staff who are subject to bullying. Witheridge suggests that one harassment adviser for every 50 staff "should get the right balance". Andrea Adams Trust provides a three-day intensive training course for harassment advisers, covering awareness, how to handle their role, the legal implications, and some role-play. After a minimum of six weeks the advisers return for a one-day follow up session. The Trust also provides similarly structured training courses for managers who are chosen to be investigators of bullying allegations, or alternatively, it can conduct investigations on companies’ behalf.

Shifting behaviour

The Andrea Adams Trust also recommends a one-day training course for all HR staff and line managers, as well as awareness seminars for every member of staff in the organisation. "These seminars have been developed to unravel some of the concepts and attitudes surrounding bullying in the workplace," says Witheridge. They cover areas such as what is workplace bullying, its impact, and the difference between bullying and strong management. Crucially, they also include exercises designed to help employees understand the impact of their own actions on other people.

Raising people's awareness about the effects of their own actions is "the key", says Witheridge, to changing bullying behaviour at an individual level – and she firmly believes that it is possible to change behaviour through training. That view is strongly endorsed by Pam Fricker, Organisational Development Manager at Kent Ambulance Service, which embarked on an anti-bullying campaign within the organisation at the end of last year and has employed the Andrea Adams Trust to provide training.

"We are running a programme of awareness training and you can almost see the penny dropping," says Fricker. "We look at typical bullying behaviour that employees might witness, such as banter and excluding people. It's behaviour that people have seen, but haven't previously considered to be that serious, because they hadn't thought about the impact it has on people." Now the message is getting through, she says. "On our evaluation sheets we are seeing a common theme, that people are starting to realise the effect of this type of behaviour. People have said that the training will make them think about their own behaviour in future."

Kevin Young at SkillSoft agrees that it is possible to change people's bullying behaviour with training. "People don't necessarily recognise that they are bullying and that their behaviour is inappropriate," he says, "It could be their defence mechanism."

However, behaviour can only be influenced up to a point, says Christine Pratt, Managing Director of HR and Diversity Management Ltd, which delivers training in the area of workplace bullying and conducts investigations into bullying allegations. The company also advises victims of bullying through the National Bullying Helpline and now hosts and funds Bullyonline, the website launched by anti-bullying campaigner, the late Tim Fields. "Someone might respond to awareness training by saying, for example, 'I didn't realise my managerial style had that effect'," she says. However, this only works if the person is receptive. "Some people are just serial bullies. They think they are right and you won't change them," she asserts.

Dealing with bullies

In Christine Pratt's view, while behaviour can't always be changed, it is always possible to change standards – by putting an anti-bullying policy in place – and to train people to recognise and deal with bullying. The focus of the company’s training programme is to help organisations and managers to "recognise bullying, take the heat out of the situation, deal with it, look at what's gone wrong, and then move forward with positive determination."

Spotting and tackling bullying behaviour is also an important component of the courses provided by the Andrea Adams Trust and the e-learning tools developed by SkillSoft. The Trust's training for advisers, HR and line managers focuses on recognising and dealing with bullies in the workplace, while its awareness seminars for all staff include training on how to challenge bullying behaviour in others.

SkillSoft's online courses are designed to give people "a framework of activities and actions they can take in order to confront and manage workplace bullying," says Kevin Young. He adds that it's possible – and important – to train people 'at both ends' of the problem: to recognise their own inappropriate behaviour and deal with bullying perpetrated by others. But he believes the most effective method is to allow everyone access to training covering both aspects, and let them take away from it what they need.

Delivery issues

While specialising in e-learning, Kevin Young recognises that role play can be a particularly valuable aspect of anti-harassment training. "The subject does lend itself to blended learning with live role play," he says. "However, the challenge is the ability to deliver it to lots of people within the organisation. E-learning is a great way to deliver a consistent message." For this reason, e-learning can be an appropriate way to deliver bullying awareness training to staff throughout an organisation, he says.

The SkillSoft courses on workplace bullying include online role-play exercises, which trainees can choose to complete or skip. "The courses are designed, like all good e-learning, to create your own track within them," says Young. The free courses also include self tests on the material covered, and can be completed in a few hours.

The number's up

SkillSoft posted its workplace harassment courses after noticing "an increasing demand for training in the whole area of work-life balance and wellbeing within the workplace," says Young. They are certainly proving popular. In September alone, more than 1300 hits were recorded on the harassment course webpage.

In the wake of Ban Bullying Day on 7th November, the appetite for all forms of training in the area of workplace bullying could be expected to rise, since the event certainly appears to have raised awareness of the issue.

"We've had a huge response," says Lyn Witheridge, speaking two days after the event. "We've seen press coverage in 217 newspapers and magazines – in the regions as well as in London – and 300,000 people took part in our online questionnaire on the day. If one person had responded I would have called it a success, but we are hoping to hit the one million mark."

Further information:
Andrea Adams Trust: www.andreaadamstrust.org.
Ban Bullying at Work Day: www.banbullyingatwork.com.
HR & Diversity Management: www.hrdiversity.co.uk; www.bullyingbusiness.co.uk"; www.nationalbullyinghelpline.co.uk
SkillSoft: www.skillsoft.com/bullying.

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