SECURITY ALERT — Bullying is not limited to the playground, it is alive and well in the workplace, too. Part of the problem, says Angus Darroch-Warren, is that managers often fail to spot the signs

Bullying is not merely a playground phenomenon. The Chartered Management Institute found that 39% of managers reported in 2005 that they felt they had been bullied in the past three years and 60% felt that bullying in the workplace was on the increase.

So what constitutes bullying? Organisations dedicated to tackling workplace bullying, such as The Andrea Adams Trust, use words and phrases such as “an abuse or misuse of power, offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour that violates the dignity of, or creates a hostile environment which undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures an individual or group of employees”.

In reality this can take the form of undermining through overloading an individual with work, criticising constantly, spreading malicious rumours or insults, ridiculing, demeaning, excluding or victimising, blocking promotion or training opportunities or making threats about job security.

Most reported cases relate to individuals being bullied by their manager or line supervisor, although a significant number involve bullying by co-workers, perhaps with the tacit involvement of the manager. Other examples may involve bullying by a client that demands a better service, or improved quality of work, through intimidation or threats that a contract will be terminated.

Apart from cases of deliberate and tacit acceptance there are cases in which management is simply ignorant and oblivious to the tell-tale signs of behaviour that lead to bullying. An interesting case recently showed what can happen. Threats of violence were sent via email to three managers on a site and subsequent investigations revealed that one of the female managers, a Muslim, had sent the emails, including one to herself, as a “cry for help”.

She had been in position for only a few months and had been in charge of a team of six Muslim men. The employer had failed to consider group ethnicity, dynamics and behaviour. The team resented her position of superiority and set out to undermine her.

They displayed pornographic material on her office door and told her that “she should be at home with the children” among other things. The manager raised the issue with her line manager who told her to “get on with the job” and “not to worry” – seemingly failing to recognise she was the victim of protracted bullying. In an act of desperation she had sent the messages to see if she could get assistance from elsewhere in the company.

The firm incurred heavy costs through settlement payments, lost management time and recruitment fees as the manager later left the company.

They put pornographic material on her office door and told her that ‘she should be at home with the children’

So what should companies do to tackle the problem? There is no specific legislation on bullying, although discrimination and harassment laws have been used to bring employers to tribunal. All employers have a duty of care to their employees – allowing workplace bullying can damage the health, self-esteem and morale of the individual concerned, but will also have a negative effect on the workforce and performance.

Employers must also be aware of the potential for a case to be brought against them and must have policies and procedure in place to deal with any complaints of bullying. Without trying to steal the thunder of employment lawyers who may be reading this piece, employers and managers need to manage incidents effectively through a robust anti-bullying framework.

Businesses and the adult workplace environment in general can learn from schools, particularly when addressing the drafting of policies and adopting a zero tolerance approach to bullying.

It is essential that the anti-bullying policy covers areas ranging from a statement of commitment from senior management that bullying is not acceptable to citing examples of unacceptable behaviour.

The policy must be communicated to the workforce during inductions and at regular intervals thereafter, and managers need to receive training on how to handle cases.

The policy must give details of who victims can approach should they be unable to speak to their manager; a confidential outsourced phone line can be beneficial.

The company’s grievance and disciplinary procedures may be adequate, but it must be remembered that it may be handled by a line manager who is either the bully or is on the same level as the manager. If the bully is a co-worker, then the manager has already “failed” as a manager by allowing the bullying to take place in the workplace.