This interview was originally conducted with Nicki Eyre as part of an HR research project, Anti-Bullying Strategy in Corporates by Ruba Shahzada in 2018, and is reproduced here with kind permission from Ruba during Anti Bullying Week, 12 - 16 November 2018
“As an expert in the field and part of your coaching experience, I will be asking you some questions to gain an insight into the Bullying that takes place in organisations. This research will aim to increase awareness in this topic and to encourage corporates to adapt policies and strategies to fight what it is considered a way of harassment.
Question 1: In your experience, do you believe that bullying at work is more popular than it thought to be? If yes, why?
I believe that bullying has always been prevalent in the workplace, but in recent years, businesses have become more aware of the need to tackle this, and their duty of care to the employee. Anti bullying policies in the workplace have also given employees a route to be able to raise their concerns.
Awareness about the many different forms that bullying has also increased, particularly the psychological impact of bullying. It now goes beyond the visible forms such as physical and verbal abuse, to the more covert approaches, including overwork, exclusion, undermining and belittling etc
Some people are now reporting their managers as bullies when there are performance issues, and they are being told where they need to improve. It’s really important that people understand that there is a difference between performance and conduct, and bullying is about the latter.
Question 2: Did you notice a certain pattern when it comes to bullying at work, for example is it more in private or public organisation? Or is it from top-bottom or vice versa?
Public sector organisations have been reporting, as an example, 1 in 3 of their staff experiencing bullying, and the austerity measures have also played a part in this. As the organisations come under greater pressure, staff are being asked to do more with less, and this creates pressure from the top that has the potential to filter down and create problems throughout all levels of the organisation.
Does this mean that the public sector has a greater issue with bullying than the private sector? My instinct tells me that this is not the case. Public sector organisations have to be more transparent as they are funded using tax payers’ money, and therefore need to be showing how that is being used, and how the organisations are being run. Private companies do not need to disclose as much information.
Additionally, employees often move on more quickly in the private sector, and may not therefore report bullying. In the public sector, particularly where someone is in a value driven role (health, care, education etc) they may stay in a role for longer because of their beliefs about needing to continue to support their clients/beneficiaries. They also often have considerably better benefit schemes in terms of sick pay and final salary pension schemes, which they do not want to lose.
The most common pattern of workplace bullying, in my experience, still seems to be the manager/boss bullying the subordinate. One of the defining features of bullying is an imbalance of power.
Question 3: Do you feel organisations nowadays are taking steps towards fighting bullying at work? If yes, what kind of steps are they taking? If no, why?
Organisations, particularly larger ones, are much more likely to have a range of policies and documents including anti-bullying policies, a code of conduct, value statements, and grievance procedures. Employees are much more aware of their rights as well. Some smaller organisations may not have as much in place, particularly where they have grown organically as the founder/CEO has developed the business.
However, the policies are not always implemented effectively, and behaviours that have been accepted as the “norm” in an organisation are not challenged, often because they are not recognised as unacceptable. Often, a change in culture is required, and the senior leadership team and Board (if appropriate) would need to lead this change, and model appropriate behaviours themselves.
Most employees are able to raise a grievance if they feel they are being bullied, but evidence shows that formal grievance and discipline channels do not tend to suit these more ‘relational’ conflicts (see the November 2015 ACAS Policy Discussion Paper - Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain’s Workplaces) This is borne out by the fact that bullying does seem to be on the increase.
Question 4: In your opinion, what does the organisation need to do to fight bullying at work? Do you think placing strategies and policies are enough, or they can do more? What they can do more?
Essentially, there needs to be an increased focus on prevention rather than resolution, starting by educating leaders and managers, and raising awareness at all levels. There also needs to be earlier intervention and support, such as coaching, for those who have identified themselves as feeling bullied, and also for those accused of being a bully. This could help them to resolve the issues themselves and not need formal processes, or alternatively, become more emotionally resilient to be able to cope with the upcoming process/ordeal.
Here are some examples of the work that we undertake to tackle workplace bullying and transform workplace behaviours:
Working with Boards/Leadership teams to implement culture change
Understanding and modelling values in practice, not just policy
One to one coaching for senior leaders and managers with an emphasis on improving emotional intelligence
Audits to establish current position, and progress reports
Education: Bullying/Behaviour awareness training at all levels of organisation including the Board
Training your own managers to deliver a bespoke in house training programme
Improving induction training in relation to conduct and behaviour
One to one coaching for individuals who have identified as feeling bullied, or been accused of being a bully
As a coach, I also work with people who have been bullied at work to help them move on afterwards, letting go of feelings of shame, anger and a need for justice or revenge. Employment lawyers are now suggesting that this could be included as part of settlement agreements, although it is very early days.
Question 5: Do you think that the UK government taking steps towards bullying at work? If yes, what are they? Do you think they are efficient solutions?
I think that there are really clear guidelines and legislation regarding discrimination at work as a result of the Equality at Work Act, but bullying is still a grey area, and is covered by many different pieces of legislation. Part of the problem is that there is not one clear and unanimously agreed definition of bullying. Additionally, individual perspectives mean that what is unacceptable behaviour to one person is perfectly acceptable to another – who can judge when there is no clear yardstick to measure against?
Question 6: As a coach in this field, do find it people are getting more confidence to speak up to their local HRs or confront their line manager?
From my case studies, I think that people have often put up with bullying for a long time before reporting it and are usually quite vulnerable and emotionally low when they reach the stage of reporting bullying. The psychological impact of bullying is such that some people are too ashamed to report it, and simply end up leaving through illness instead. There is a lack of trust in the process, and an assumption that the person being bullied will be made to leave – although this is generally what they will want by this stage too.
The HR position is also compromised as they have both a duty of care to the employee, but also need to protect their employer from possible claims.
Question 7: When people do speak up and confront their management, do you think they win the case or they simply tend to leave their organisations and feel frustrated about their organisation?
In my experience, most people do not win their case, and even if it goes to tribunal and they win, they do not receive acknowledgement of having been bullied or an apology. It is simply a financial settlement, often with an agreement in place preventing the employee from speaking about the organisation in detrimental terms in the future.
Some people do just walk away, either because they do not believe it will do any good to report the bullying, or because they just can’t face the conflict ahead. They choose self preservation rather than confrontation, and usually move on to a new role. They will be very fortunate if the experience has not had a detrimental effect on either their health or their trust in future employers.”
This is one of a series of articles by Nicki Eyre about the impact of bullying. Nicki Eyre is a Transformational Coach based in Harrogate covering Harrogate, Leeds and York offering support programmes for businesses and individuals to increase self-awareness and emotional resilience. She and her team support businesses to prevent bullying, as well as individuals struggling to cope with bullying, during and after the experience.
Contact Nicki for a confidential discussion about your experience: