According to the law firm, Fox & Partners, bullying claims increased from 581 to 835 between March 2021 and March 2022. A YouGov Poll found that 29% of people have been the victims of workplace bullying – that’s almost 3 in every 10 workers. With remote and hybrid work more commonly available, some employees have secured relief from their toxic working environments. However, evidence suggests that remote and hybrid models have opened new routes for workplace bullying to not only continue but thrive.
A survey from The Workplace Bullying Institute in 2021 for instance, showed that 43% of 1,215 US remote workers had been subject to workplace bullying, most through email and video calls.
Workplace bullying and power imbalances
There are lots of ways people can face bullying at work. A manager may pick on one individual, setting them heavier workloads and/or making snide comments about them in front of their peers. The bullying may include humiliating, offensive or threatening comments via email or social media. Sometimes, the behaviour is much more nuanced and could include sarcasm, denial and intentionally leaving a person out. Although there is no legal definition of bullying, it can include any unwanted behaviour that causes physical or emotional harm.
As culture change consultants, Serenity in Leadership has dealt with many incidents of workplace bullying and harassment. On occasion, we have worked directly with the bully themselves, and our experience shows that bullying is often systemic because it is condoned through silence. This is particularly true for organisations where hierarchy is excessively valued with a clear nod to a ‘master and servant’ culture.
Responsible leaders understand that their role in senior management requires a duty of care to the well-being of their staff. It is their responsibility to ensure employees feel safe and secure both in the office and when working from home.
Here are some ways responsible leaders deal with workplace bullying:
1. They leave their ego at the door
Professor Andrew Oswald from Warwick University published a paper on ‘technically competent’ bosses. His research found that in the UK and US, the single strongest predictor of job satisfaction is your boss’s competence.
Many bosses who bully at work often have an inflated, vulnerable ego. They are frequently inept leaders who prioritise their own self-promotion and importance as opposed to the success and experience of their team. Responsible leaders consistently ask and act on feedback, check in on their behaviour and promote staff members who demonstrate a passion for the organisation, as opposed to their own ambition. When egoistic people are in senior leadership positions, bullying is likely to occur.
2. They call out bullying behaviour
A recent report by People Safe found that 6.8 million staff feel unsafe at work every week. The report also shows that 1 in 4 people have left a job due to a safety concern or experience in the last five years.
While many organisations say they do not accept bullying, very few places address bullying claims. This is especially true when the said bully is an influential manager or a high-performing employee. If leaders do not take appropriate action, employees will avoid speaking out for fear of the real prospect of retribution.
Responsible leaders understand that it is irrelevant whether a bully is high-performing – one bully is all it takes to create a toxic work environment that leads to quick staff turnover and an increase in absenteeism.
3. They ensure HR has adequate training and power
When dealing with a bullying incident, management usually looks to HR. There are very few people in HR however who have efficient training in how to deal with bullying. Another barrier in reporting bullying to HR people is that they often sit in a place in the organisation where they are powerless. HR can only deal with bullying if they are truly respected, empowered and listened to.
4. They provide clear protocols
Because there is no set definition for bullying, it is not always clear if you are a victim. The perpetrator may have spent years slowly cutting away at an employee’s self-esteem, causing the individual to not have the confidence to come forward. That is why responsible leaders set clear protocols on what to do if you are being bullied or if you see someone being bullied.
In a study we carried out in the oil and gas industry just before the pandemic, every woman, that’s 100% of female interviewees, said they would not use the (typically very sophisticated) reporting systems their companies had in place for harassment. Thus all written bullying and harassment policies must state what constitutes bullying in their organisation, and leaders should not be complacent if their reporting numbers are low. Responsible leaders frequently hold regular policy meetings to uphold standards and monitor undercurrent feelings.
5. They create real dialogue
Consistently, we have seen the benefits of facilitated dialogue. Meetings do not always provide a safe space for people to talk about their concerns with leaders. But in a dialogue session with a facilitator, people with completely opposite views can listen to each other and find ways to eliminate bias.
Responsible leaders recognise that at the top of an organisation, they only have a bird’s eye view of what is happening. It is the people within the business that can really shed light on company culture.
Our CEO, Thom Dennis explores things organisations and individuals can do to eliminate bullying and harassment in our dialogue series on Profitable Wellbeing. Click here to watch.