Human Resources

Bullied at Work: What Can You Do?

Our recent research revealed the sheer scale of bullying in IT workplaces. This showed that 75% of professionals we surveyed claimed to have been bullied at work, while 85% had seen others bullied. However, for me, the most serious part of it all was the sheer intensity of the first-person accounts.

We reviewed over 400-in-depth testimonials and these made for pretty harrowing reading. Quite aside from the steady grind of debilitating misery, 22% described the experience as 10/10 “virtually unbearable” and a number specifically mentioned suicide.

The trouble is there is no legislation to target this problem and many professionals simply can’t believe this is happening to them at work. This situation is worsened further by the fact the majority of bullies (76% by our findings) are in a senior position to their victim - this leaves many people absolutely terrified to make a fuss or appear a troublemaker. 

So what can professionals realistically do about it? We’ve consulted two experts, one from each side of the Atlantic, to gain their viewpoints. We’ve included both sets of answers below.

US Perspective

Q&A with leading expert, Dr Namie, of the Workplace Bullying Institute

What practical steps can employees who feel they’re being bullied take?

It is critical for people who suffered emotional damage to strip out emotionality from their pleas for relief. Best to make the business case that bullies are too expensive to keep. It is impersonal and not emotionally charged. Sticking to facts allows the bullied target to make a presentation to the highest level manager or executive who agrees to listen to them.

Do you have any other particular advice for people who think they are being bullied?

Because bullying happens long before it is recognized, it’s important to pay attention to changes in your personal mood and wellbeing. If your health is adversely affected, trust your gut and connect the dots to see that toxic work conditions may be responsible. The sooner you make the causal link the healthier you will be.

Is there anything unique to the US which professionals ought to know about?

Employment law in the US provides the weakest protections for workers among the OECD nations. For this reason American employers not only treat bullying with indifference, they can encourage it with impunity. 

Is there anything else you would like to share which might help individuals across the globe counteract this?

A lesson from our 17 year campaign against workplace bullying is that supporters and critics alike must see bullying as a form of non-physical workplace violence. Because it generates trauma in the most severe cases, it is a form of abuse akin to child-abuse and domestic violence. Therefore abusive conduct at work deserves the same societal and legal attention that other forms of abuse have earned.



UK Perspective

Q&A with Pam Farmer who runs HR consultancy The Change Map

Can you briefly explain the UK discrimination legislation?

There is no legislation in the UK which specifically deals with bullying.  However harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, particularly Scotland and Northern Ireland, may have a slightly different way of doing things. 

Harassment is unwanted behaviour which is related to:

  • age
  • sex
  • disability
  • gender (including gender reassignment)
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sexual orientation

Some people have used the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 in workplace bullying cases.  This Act was originally put in place to protect people who were victims of stalking hence the Act being known as the 'Stalkers' Act'  however it has been used, occasionally, by people seeking redress against alleged bullies.   It is a complex area and it is essential to seek the advice of a lawyer.  The employer as well as the bullying employee could be held liable for damages.

Another legal area which could assist someone who feels that they have been bullied is that of Constructive dismissal. This is when an employee is forced to quit their job against their will because of their employer's conduct. 

What practical steps can employees who feel they’re being bullied take?

1.  As soon as you become aware of unreasonable behaviour or behaviour you find unacceptable, find someone who is independent of the situation AND knows about bullying and discuss it with them.  This may be a union official, a trusted friend with the right experience, a bullying helpline or ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service).

Friends and colleagues without experience of workplace bullying may try to find a rationale which may justify the bully's behaviour: “what did you do to make him/her react like that?” Although it seems hard to think that a friend or colleague would do or say this sort of thing, it is often the case that people outside the situation find it hard to believe what they are hearing.   So to reiterate: go to someone who knows about workplace bullying.

2.  Keep a note of incidents. This is essential. Date, time and incident including outcome and how you felt. Contemporaneous notes hold a lot of weight.

3.  If you feel able to, discuss the issue with the bully. This may make things worse so be cautious. Sometimes writing an email to the bully is a good approach as you have put your view in writing and have cited when where and how it makes you feel.  BUT you must not be aggressive in either personal or written communication, but simply put your case. Take advice about when and how you do this.   

4.  If you feel unable to resolve the situation and it continues it is essential to ask a third party to become involved. HR practitioners are becoming increasingly skilled in dealing with bullying and they are being backed more and more by organisations. However people often involve their union officials or go to Citizen's Advice or a Solicitor. 

5.  Tackling the situation informally is better than a formal complaint, however sometimes a formal complaint is necessary.

6.  Unfortunately you cannot necessarily rely on by-standers/colleagues to corroborate what you have experienced.  For complex reasons by-standers may not want to get involved, sadly.  

7.   Sometimes the only way forward is to move away from the bully. A job move or leaving the organisation may have to be considered. If the bully is well-known you may find alternative work in your organisation more easily than you believe.

There are many websites which explore these issues in greater detail. ACAS provides a useful downloadable briefing which gives more details: employees.pdf

Do you have any other advice for people who think they are being bullied?

As soon as you realise that you are being bullied you must resolve to do something. Trying to sit it out will not make it go away and it is not an option.  Pretending that it is not happening - denial - is also not an option. If there are people in your organisation who are specialists in workplace disputes, equality or bullying, go and speak to them.

Tackling a workplace bullying situation successfully means that you are going to have to draw on greater personal resources than you may imagine. Do not forget to look after yourself. If you need to visit the doctor, go. If you are told by your family that your behaviour has changed, go to see your doctor. Do not be afraid to find a counsellor. Taking sick absence may be an option. This is a hard thing to say but don't let taking sick absence be a way of not resolving the issue.   

Above all, if you can, do not wait until you receive a poor appraisal before you act. Once the bully (if it is your manager) gives you a poor appraisal, it becomes more problematical for the organisation (HR or a senior manager) to take a balanced view: “well s/he would say that... s/he is a poor performer.” If this happens to you, draw on your previous good record, argue that your previous manager was a tough and fair minded person and used the organisation's standards against which to judge you. Ask why and keep asking why your performance has deteriorated if you are bullied by a new manager. Cite your evidence. Make your position clear. Do not let anyone tell you that standards have changed or that your previous manager was weak.  You know what is happening to you.  

Is there anything else you would like to share which might help individuals across the globe counteract this?

The situation relating to workplace bullying is changing rapidly and a lot of good work has come out of the health and safety at work sector. Employees are entitled to a healthy and mentally safe work environment and this is beginning to be well understood globally. Canada and Australia are leaders in this field amongst the English speaking countries. A number of European countries have highly progressive legislation in place.   

In my opinion placing bullying at work squarely in the field of health and safety is a positive way forward.  It removes the nuances of the individual opinion and lifts the discussion into the same arena as safety at work.  None of us would ever argue that we are not entitled to work in a safe environment. So the questions now are: Is work a psychologically healthy and safe environment? What do we need to do to ensure that it is a psychologically healthy environment? Out of these questions are coming a great deal of organisation change in relation to acknowledging the toxicity of poor workplace behaviour.


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