What is bullying in the workplace?

Whether it is workplace banter, macho-management, foul language, good humour, “a rough time” or humiliation, bullying in the workplace is gaining a worryingly high profile.

Various journalists, Janet Street Porter and Polly Toynbee spring to mind, seem not to recognise that it exists, while Matthew Parris writing in the Times this week draws the line a bit too close for my comfort.

On the other hand Army instructors, John Bercow and Kevin Spacey are among others who now stand accused of bullying behaviour. Since it was behaviour they may even have thought was part of their job; one might have some sympathy for them.

But they should be conscious that those who were once insecure, docile and accepting, are gaining confidence with every new revelation.

So where do employers stand?

Humour is an important part of people working together. But much humour is based on the misfortune of another. In every team the leader has to make a judgment about the sensitivity of the members of the team. Once a leader senses banter may be going to far, they have a responsibility to pull it back.

So does it matter? I suggest that it does.

Each workplace is different. Kitchen staff may expect, and accept, the type of behaviour epitomised by Gordon Ramsey. Such behaviour would not be acceptable in a Nursery. But using “workplace banter” as an explanation for bullying or harassment might, as an Employment Judge once suggested to me, add a “zero” to any “injury to feelings” award – that is increase it tenfold!

So what can an employer do?

  • Add a Bullying and Harassment Policy to your Employee handbook.
  • Train yourself, supervisors and managers in disciplinary processes both informal (particularly) and formal.
  • Be aware of the sensitivities of your staff.
  • Be aware of yourself. Seek to keep your own stress levels under control. Bullying tends to cascade down (although not always) an organisation and can have origins in stress.
  • Make it easy for an employee to complain – your policy can help
  • Set an example

The following are behaviours that I suggest would not amount to bullying:

  • Firm instruction
  • Correction of an employee’s behaviour
  • Informal warnings (delivered appropriately)
  • Valid criticism
  • Giving feedback, even negative feedback

Here are some behaviours that I suggest will amount to bullying in most circumstances:

  • Humiliation
  • Deliberate hurting
  • Hostility towards an employee
  • Shouting
  • Belittling
  • Repeated criticism
  • Threats, such as of marginalisation
  • Sarcasm
  • Compromising dignity
  • Using offensive language towards the person
  • Lack of reasonable respect towards a person
  • Any of these in the form of cyber-bullying

The list is not exhaustive.

Of course given in good humour most of these behaviours could escape the label of bullying. Despite this, a “sense of humour” on a person specification might not serve well as a defence in court! Take care.

Malcolm Martin FCIPD

Author Human Resource Practice.

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