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How to: Deal with bullying in the workplace

By Michael Cheary

Think of bullying and many of us think of the school playground. But bullying in the workplace, amongst grown adults, is a reality. And it’s a reality which, if not dealt with in the right way, can lead to serious difficulties for everyone involved.

Think of bullying and many of us think of the school playground. But bullying in the workplace, amongst grown adults, is a reality. And it’s a reality which, if not dealt with in the right way, can lead to serious difficulties for everyone involved.

Many cases of workplace bullying go unreported or misunderstood and, as a victim, it can be hard to know where to turn.

Here are some practical ways to identify if you or anyone you know is the victim of bullying at work, and how to deal with it.

Are you being bullied?

As any accusations you make are likely to be taken extremely seriously, the first thing is to ascertain whether you are actually being bullied. Being chastised for poor performance, as long as it’s done professionally, is unlikely to be classed as bullying (although it may sometimes be difficult to deal with).

Identifying the difference between bullying and performance management can be difficult, especially if your role is goal-orientated or target-driven. However, it’s important you consider this distinction before you decide to take your claims any further.

What’s more, as bullying is almost always carried out on a repetitive basis, it’s important to ascertain whether your situation is the result of an isolated incident, or a prolonged episode of bullying.

What is bullying in the workplace?

Bullying comes in a variety of shapes and forms, and may be carried out at various levels. Bullying could come from a manager, a supervisor, a co-worker or anyone else from around the organisation.

Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, some examples of bullying in the workplace might include:

  • Insults, rudeness or intentional embarrassment
  • Spreading rumours or stories about individuals
  • Excluding and ignoring people or any other form of victimisation
  • Unwarranted personal or professional criticism
  • Overworking
  • Making staff members perform demeaning, degrading or pointless tasks
  • Threatening behaviour
  • Unwanted sexual advances and harassment
  • Preventing promotion or other professional development

It is important to remember that, just as bullying can come in a variety of different forms, it can also be carried out in a variety of different ways which may not necessarily be limited to face-to-face communications. If you’re being bullied via e-mail, telephone, text message or any other type of written or verbal communication, it is no less serious.

Effects of bullying

Bullying can have a number of negative consequences for the victims, having a significant effect on both their professional and personal lives.

Aside from the obvious loss of motivation at work, it can also lead to anxiousness, sleeplessness, loss of self-confidence and other self-esteem issues. Victims of regular bullying often find it difficult to maintain concentration, making it hard for them to cope with daily tasks and continue working effectively.

Bullying can also lead to a deterioration in health, mental illness, stress and depression, all of which can lead to extended periods of absence, which could have serious repercussions for an employer’s business. To put it simply, if not dealt with properly, bullying has the potential to cause serious damage to your career.  

Excuses for bullying

Whatever their position and your relationship with them, workplace bullies may attempt to justify their behaviour, and convince you that any wrongdoing or victimisation is simply a misunderstanding. Sometimes their superiors, other members of staff and co-workers may also try and explain their actions. Common excuses include:

  • They’re under a lot of pressure to get results
  • They’re ‘just passionate’
  • They’re firm, but fair
  • They’re ‘just not that sort of person’

Perhaps even worse than these excuses, a bully’s actions can sometimes be ignored because of their position within the business. If someone is seen as indispensable to an organisation, they may be allowed to act in any way they choose, with other members of staff fearful of repercussions if they are brave enough to speak up.

Always remember that, despite what anyone says, excuses like these do not vindicate the actions of a bully. Bullying is always inexcusable, regardless of the instigator.

If you feel you’re the victim of bullying, it’s time to take action. 

What can I do?

Talk to the guilty party

The first thing to try to do is talk to the bully. The person in question may not have realised how badly you’ve reacted to their behaviour and the complaint might not have to go any further.

If you don’t feel comfortable approaching them alone, ask a colleague to come with you and act as a mediator. Although this won’t always be enough to change their behaviour, a large number of workplace issues can be resolved informally, and needn’t be taken any further.


Talk to the right people

If talking to the bully isn’t an option, then find the right people to take your complaint to. Ask to speak to your line manager or someone from your employer’s Human Resources department.

Explain how the issue is causing you to feel unmotivated and affecting your performance in the workplace. Discussing the issue with other people will not only mean the issue gets resolved more quickly, but it can also be extremely comforting and cathartic.

Seek formal help

If it’s got to the point where no-one else will listen, then you could take the matter further by seeking external assistance. A good place to start is ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). Their main aim is to improve working life through better employment relations and they offer free and impartial advice on the subject.

Advice can also be sought from the Citizens Advice Bureau, and many other independent bodies. However, following more formal procedures may only exacerbate the situation, and this option should only ever be used as a last resort.

For more information on who to speak to, visit the directgov website.

 

Stay calm, stay professional

However you decide to deal with the situation, it’s always important to stay calm. Although it’s often easier said than done, letting the bully see that they’re getting to you may make the situation worse. Try to remain as rational and professional as possible, and take the right steps to find a resolution.

If you do think you’re being bullied, don’t suffer in silence and don’t wait too long to speak up. Nobody deserves to be a victim.

 

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