Bullying at work is a real and present issue in UK.  And, worryingly, it doesn’t appear to be going away.

In December 2023, a YouGov poll revealed one in five Britons (21%) had experienced bullying in adulthood, with the most common source of adulthood bullying being the workplace.

Not only does bullying appear to be prevalent in today’s professional environment, but negative and (frankly) archaic attitudes towards bullying persist. For example, during reports of toxic cultures at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), an employee alleged being told that “everyone should be bullied once in their lifetime”. Indeed, in some professions, bullying of junior employees by senior employees or leaders is viewed as a rite of passage or dismissed as a “management style”.

At Tell Jane, we’re on a mission to change perceptions and empower employees – and their organisation as a whole – to speak out against bullying.

This is our practical guide for employees to deal with bullies at work:

What is bullying?

Bullying is unwanted behaviour from a person or a group that is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting, or involves an abuse of power that humiliates, undermines or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.

It can occur as a one-off incident or a regular pattern of behaviour, and can happen face-to-face, in emails, messages, calls or on social media.

What form does bullying take?

Bullying can include:
• Verbal abuse, offensive comments, name-calling, spreading malicious rumours or using derogatory language
• Humiliating, ridiculing, mimicking or mocking an individual – usually related to the way they look, their mannerisms or accent
• Belittling their efforts in front of others or constant criticism
• Deliberate exclusion from conversations, meetings, team activities and social events
• Withholding information that a person needs to fulfil their role or consistently giving them unattainable workloads, so setting them up to fail
• Pranks, practical jokes, initiation ceremonies
• Deep fakes or sharing/posting images of someone on social media
• Physical abuse
• Rifling through, hiding or damaging personal property

Who can commit bullying?

Bullying may not necessarily involve an abuse of seniority, but it does involve an abuse of power or motivation to gain or assert power by humiliating or belittling another. The sad truth is, anyone and everyone is capable of bullying. It can occur between colleagues, managers, departments, and locations.
It can also be carried out by more than one person and is not limited to being conducted by those within your organisation – that is, clients or suppliers.

The problem with bullying

Bullying isn’t against the law – unlike harassment and discrimination. So, does this mean it’s potentially not taken as seriously? Or more challenging to define and therefore identify when it is happening?

Bullying by its very nature is hidden and insidious. It is also often excused as a manager trying to challenge or get the best from their team by pushing them to succeed.

But in all instances, it is the impact of the behaviour on the individual rather than the intent that is the most important consideration. And when this behaviour is repeatedly sustained, there is a significant impact to quality of life, including physical and mental health risks. Those who experience bullying are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, as well as increased stress, anxiety and substance dependence.

What to do if you experience bullying in your workplace

1. Document what has happened

First things first, you need a record of every incident that has happened.

Document the date, time, location, people involved, and details of the behaviour. Having a thorough record can provide evidence of the ongoing pattern of bullying, which will support your case when seeking assistance from HR or management.

2. Knowledge is power

Read up on your organisation’s Anti-bullying and Harassment Policy.

Anti-bullying and harassment policies are a valuable source of information for highlighting the channels of support and the process for reporting a complaint of bullying. When you understand the support available and know what to expect when making a report, you will feel more confident, reassured and empowered in tackling the behaviour.

3. Seek support

You do not have to face this alone.

Experiencing workplace bullying can be extremely distressing, emotionally draining and take a significant toll on your wellbeing. Talk to your manager or to HR. They will be able to support you in resolving the situation informally or through making a formal complaint.

If you do not feel able to speak to your manager (especially if they are the perpetrator) or to HR, confiding in a trusted colleague, friend, or family member about your experiences will give you the opportunity to receive much-needed advice and perspective.

Alternatively, your workplace may offer an Employee Assistance Programme or an Anonymous Reporting Hotline, where you can make a confidential complaint and seek impartial guidance.

4. Speak to the bully

This takes courage, but again, this is not something you need to do alone.

Mediation is an effective way to voice how you feel and to enlighten the perpetrator of the impact of their behaviour. Mediated conversations are overseen by a trained mediator or member of your HR team, and give each party the opportunity to explain their side of the story, find common ground and work together towards positive resolution.

If you feel comfortable and safe speaking to the bully directly, be sure to communicate clearly, calmly and assertively. Find a time and place where you can discuss the issue without distraction or interruption. Now, this is not an opportunity for confrontation or finger pointing, this is your chance to explain how their behaviour is impacting you; therefore, it is important to use “I” statements to express your feelings and to avoid sounding accusatory. Finally, have a clear expectation and focus for how you want to resolve the situation.

What does respectful behaviour and a healthy working relationship look like to you? What practical solutions can you suggest to improve the relationship ongoing?

5. Stand up against bullying as a team

Let’s look out for each other.

Workplace bullying affects not only the victim but the overall team dynamics and company culture as a whole. Colleagues who witness bullying can play a vital role in preventing and addressing such behaviour through bystander intervention. By taking a collective stand against bullying and supporting each other, employees can foster a sense of unity, protect against toxic behaviour, and cultivate an environment of respect and empathy.

Every individual deserves to work in an environment free from bullying. Tell Jane offers a wealth of services to prevent workplace bullying and empower employees to speak out against toxic behaviour, including an anonymous reporting hotline, mediation, conducting grievance investigations and anti-bullying and harassment training and policy review. Talk to us today to learn more.

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