Bullying in the workplace

In Mental Health by Elena Langtry

Bullying at work is common and can be experienced in many different ways.  If you feel you are being bullied this can be a very upsetting and painful experience. Bullying can affect both our mental and physical health. It is important that you don’t suffer in silence. However, knowing how and where to seek help can be hard. Having experienced bullying myself, I hope the advice I offer in this blog can help you just as much as it has helped me.

What is bullying?

The term can be elastic, and defined differently depending on your sensitivity or experience. I’m forceful, you’re aggressive, she or he is a bully. Behaviour such as raising your voice to somebody, or itemising their failings, or threatening someone with sanctions or dismissal, might amount to bullying, but not necessarily so. There are times when instruction, assertion, and correction are necessary in the workplace – even though I know I find such moments difficult. I hate being told I’ve got it wrong. I blush and feel belittled. But I also know that’s how I’ve upped my game over the years.

Equally, the context in which such actions take place matters greatly. When I spend time with the charities I work with, the atmosphere, as you might expect, is gentle. My colleagues are soothing and always suggest a nice cup of peppermint tea. A sharp word here would be a shock indeed, possibly tantamount to bullying. Meanwhile the atmosphere feels different at some of the big corporate banks and law firms I’ve collaborated with. There, colleagues operate in a high-pressure environment, with plenty of banter and jokes, and a verbal cuff would be unlikely to amount to bullying – though race, gender and sexuality are no-go areas for any verbal slaps and will lead straight to a complaints procedure.

My experience

My definition of bullying reflects my experience a few years ago, when a colleague sometimes, and seemingly randomly, shouted at me about my failings, not to make me any better or more efficient, but for the sake of being destructive and hurtful. It was particularly unpleasant as the rest of the time we seemed to get on well. There’s nothing good to be said about such an experience, except that it did make me think about how to handle a bully. 

Tackling bullying in the workplace

1. While you cannot control what a bully says or does, you can control your response. One response is to keep a note of any incidents, including dates, times and witnesses. This is known as a contemporaneous record. It will be very useful if you decide to take action at a later stage.

2. You can also respond by setting boundaries with a bully. Be direct about what you do not like about his or her behaviour and let him or her know that if he continues you will report him. Try not to get emotional when you are talking to a bully because he or she will likely use this against you.

3. If the bullying continues and is not a one-time incident of mean behaviour, report it to your supervisor. And if the bully is your supervisor, go to his supervisor.

4. Find yourself an ally. Don’t be ashamed to tell people what’s going on. Bullying is serious, and you need to let people know what’s happening so they can help you. By sharing your experiences you may discover that it’s happening to other people, too.

5. Speak to someone about how you might deal with the problem informally. This person could be: an employee representative, such as a trade union official, someone in the firm’s human resources department, your manager or supervisor. Some employers have specially trained staff to help with bullying and harassment problems. They’re sometimes called “harassment advisers”. If the bullying is affecting your health, visit your GP.

6. Recognise that criticism or personal remarks are not connected to your abilities. They reflect the bully’s own weaknesses, and are meant to intimidate and control you. Stay calm, and don’t be tempted to explain your behaviour. Ask them to explain theirs.

7. The bullying may not be deliberate. If you can, talk to the person in question, as they may not realise how their behaviour has affected you. Work out what to say beforehand. Describe what’s been happening and why you object to it. Stay calm and be polite. If you don’t want to talk to them yourself, ask someone else to do it for you. Try to talk calmly to the person who’s bullying you and tell them that you find their behaviour unacceptable. Often, bullies retreat from people who stand up to them. If necessary, have an ally with you when you do this.

8. Making a formal complaint is the next step if you can’t solve the problem informally. To do this, you must follow your employer’s grievance procedure. Sometimes the problem continues even after you’ve followed your employer’s grievance procedure. If nothing is done to put things right, you can consider legal action, which may mean going to an employment tribunal. Get professional advice before taking this step.

9. Find out more about the law covering workplace bullying here. Let your manager or union or staff representative know of the problem, or seek advice elsewhere, such as: Acas helpline, Citizens Advice: problems at work, Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter.

“My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness”

“My grace is sufficient for thee; my strength is made perfect in weakness”