If the office feels a thumbscrew short of a torture chamber, and your boss is constantly singling you out, you could be a victim of workplace bullying. Here’s how to identify harassment at work and what to do if you’re being bullied.
As an adult you’d think bullying would have been left in the playground, yet figures from the TUC show that nearly a third of people have been bullied at work, and it’s on the rise. Women more likely to be affected than men and – surprisingly – the highest prevalence is among 40-59-year-olds.
“Bullying causes stress and anxiety and can have long-term effects on victims’ physical and mental health,” says TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady. “No one should have to leave their job because of bullying.”
It can take many forms, from a colleague who is perpetually stealing your bright ideas to malicious rumours or a boss constantly putting you down or exploding with rage. So how should you handle unfair treatment at work?
First, it’s important to know where the line lies.
What is defined as bullying in the workplace?
Managers are entitled to pull up team members for poor performance or disciplinary problems – provided it’s through the proper channels – and it’s ok for colleagues to have a difference of opinion. However, when disagreements become a pattern and behaviour seems persistently unreasonable, it is time to ask yourself if it’s crossed the line into bullying.
Bullying and harassment are frequently lumped together, and the two are closely linked, but while harassment is defined by the Equality Act 2010, bullying isn’t.
ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) defines harassment as “unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident.” Examples might include homophobic comments or teasing about a disability.
By contrast, bullying is generally perceived as offensive, intimidating, humiliating, rude, malicious or insulting behaviour, and abuse of power. So, what constitutes bullying at work? It might include constant criticism, setting unmanageable targets, spreading spiteful rumours, ridicule, unfair treatment, deliberate blocking of promotion, overbearing supervision, exclusion, unwelcome sexual advances or threats about job security.
“Workplace bullying is about power,” says chartered psychologist Aryanne Oade, who specialises in enabling recovery from workplace bullying and in bully-proofing skills. “There are potentially three forms of power than a bully might wish to remove from their target: personal power – inner confidence and self-esteem, reputational influence (credibility in the eyes of colleagues and other workplace contacts), and organisational status (ability to perform their role to standard). A skilled bully will attack on all forms simultaneously, which can be overwhelming.”
How to identify if you are being bullied?
Sometimes obvious, sometimes insidious, bullying can be hard to identify. “It is not necessarily face to face,” says Beverley Sunderland, Managing Director at Crossland Employment Solicitors; “it may occur in written communications and particularly email and social media; even excluding a colleague from social gatherings or from a WhatsApp group.
“Bullying can make someone feel anxious and humiliated or angry and frustrated for not being able to cope. Some people may try to retaliate whilst others may become frightened and de-motivated. Stress, loss of self-confidence and self-esteem caused by bullying can lead to job insecurity, illness, absence from work, and even resignation. Almost always job performance is affected and relations in the workplace suffer.”
Offices are a political arena, a melting pot of different personalities, generations, and ideas. It can be difficult walking that fine line of likeable yet professional, but while office banter and friendships often makes the 9-5 more bearable, there’s no excuse when the dynamic swings the other way.
Here are some signs of workplace bullying that should raise a red flag:
1. Constant criticism
Your boss seemingly has a file of all your historical mistakes that they delight in referring to, and they find fault in all your work, no matter how good your latest report.
2. Different standards
Unfair treatment at work notices when you and your colleagues are held to obviously different standards.
3. The goal posts change
Making last-minute changes to the schedule, inconsistent expectations and putting unreasonable roadblocks is the classic work of an office bully.
4. Impossible workload
Similarly, deliberate overworking is setting you up to fail, sabotage that constitutes bullying.
5. Social alienation
Not invited to lunch, after work drinks or meetings? If deliberate and baseless, purposefully ignoring someone to make them feel intentionally excluded is unacceptable.
6. Verbal abuse
Shouting and yelling are unprofessional and create a hostile environment, especially if habitual and directed at particular people.
Excessive supervision and extreme micromanagement are unnecessary and intimidating, creating daily paranoia that you don’t have to put up with.
Discounting or failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns, or making excuses for behaving badly
9. Removing responsibility and blocking promotion
Access to training and promotions can be blocked, while job responsibilities are removed or changed without reason
10. Withholding information
Inexplicable refusal to reveal information – or worse giving misinformation – that is necessary to performing your role
11. Mean girls
Making one person the butt of all jokes and spreading lies and malicious gossip, apart from being witheringly childish, is a form of covert bullying.
12. Your health is deteriorating
Bullying can leave you feeling scared, stressed, anxious and low in confidence, all of which can have a physical effect on your health, from stomach aches to headaches, panic attacks and exhaustion.
How should you deal with bullies at work?
“Trying to resolve matters informally is always the starting point,” advises Beverley. Remember that not all bullying is deliberate and can simply reflect their own weaknesses.
Stand up for yourself. “Recognise that the optimal time to protect oneself is at the moment of attack – not afterwards,” says Aryanne. “Put the spotlight back on the bully. It requires them to give account for the bullying remarks they have just used and makes it clear that you know how to handle yourself, even under pressure.”
Mental health charity Mind suggests asking to speak to your co-worker in private and calmly explaining the situation and your feelings: “Try not to get drawn into arguments. Putting your point across in a diplomatic way can help avoid unhelpful disagreements. You may find it helpful to use phrases such as, ‘I appreciate your point of view, but I don’t see it that way’.”
If it happens again, talk to your superior, another manager (particularly if your own manager is the problem) or someone from HR.
“Keep a diary of all incidents with times, dates, witnesses and what happened”, advises BullyingUK, and “confide in a manager or the Human Resources department. Ask if there is a policy in place to deal with bullying and harassment at work. If you are a member of a trade union, you could get in touch with them and ask for advice and representation.”
If nothing improves, raise a formal complaint via the formal grievance procedure. If all else fails, you can escalate your case to an employment tribunal.
What is your legal right against bullying and employer’s responsibility?
Employers have a duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and need to ensure the health and welfare of their employees. If they fail to, they can be liable for fines, compensation and legal action.
“Employers must have a zero-tolerance policy,” says Frances. “If bullies are allowed to dominate a workplace, wider office morale and productivity suffers too. Too many are simply ignoring bullying behaviour and failing to support staff.”
“All employees are entitled to a safe place of work and to not be treated in a manner which undermines trust and confidence,” explains Beverley, “so an employer must deal fairly and consistently with bullying. HR should have in place a clear anti-bullying policy and spell out the sanctions imposed on those found to be bullying: it is potential gross misconduct and can result in dismissal.
“If someone is being bullied and their employer does not do anything about it, the employee may leave and, if they have been employed for more than two years, claim constructive dismissal.”
These claims are brought to a tribunal, and if successful can mean see damages awarded, however if you have not followed the grievance procedure – the employer’s chance to put things right – this bullying at work compensation could be reduced by up to 25%.
Interestingly, “if you have house insurance, you may be covered for legal expenses,” for loss of earnings says BullyingUK; “It’s worth checking this.”
It’s uncomfortable, but you don’t have to put up with bullying at work. Keep a level head and try not to take it personally – the problem lies with the bully, not with you. Take control of the situation by explaining, one-to-one, the problem and impact on you. You can find some helpful tips on dealing with tricky colleagues in this article.
If that fails, escalate it to HR and follow the company grievance policy – employers are obliged to tackle harmful behaviour. If the problem persists and your employer fails to deal with it, it could constitute constructive dismissal and you could be eligible for compensation.
When it comes to looking for your next job, be wary of mentioning it too much in interviews – bullying doesn’t have to define you.