Stamping out workplace bullying is a challenging task and requires the right set of personal skills, says Fergus Roseburgh.
‘Bullying’ is a subjective and pejorative term. There are many definitions and, while they tend to adopt common themes, there is no consensus on one single definition.
A widely accepted definition comes from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). Bullying is “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”.
Rather than focusing on whether the behaviour meets some narrow definition of bullying, it is easier to determine whether the behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable by any reasonable standard.
Although severe incidents occur, bullying tends to be quite subtle and, when viewed in isolation, can even seem trivial. It is the pattern and regularity of incidents that generally act as main indicators.
My interest in understanding workplace bullying stemmed from advising an employee who felt bullied. A prolonged debate ensued between management, HR and the trade union as to whether the incidents reported were simply firm management or constituted a narrow definition of bullying.
This caused an unnecessary and costly diversion to the real question at hand: Was the behaviour acceptable or unacceptable within the workplace?
As leaders, do not become confused or distracted by these types of debates. I have never come across management theory or leadership style that suggests that any workplace message or instruction needs to be delivered in a threatening or undignified manner.
As an employer, manager or leader, you have a legal duty of care towards employees and therefore a responsibility to resolve any complaints that arise – as well as a moral duty.
Cultivate a mindset for resolution
If you are a leader or manager having to deal with a complaint of potential workplace bullying, do your research. You must act:
These are some core considerations when dealing with workplace bullying:
1 Confronting conflict
Develop the confidence to handle conflict situations. Ignoring conflict between employees will often make things worse.
On an informal level, it may be possible to resolve a complaint through one-to-one sessions with employees, listening carefully to the issues and assisting with suggestions for resolving the situation.
2 Ask for help
If you don’t feel you have the skills to deal with the situation delegate to someone who has.
3 Don’t get too involved
Mediation may be an alternative and should only be undertaken if you are suitably qualified. If you feel that you are too close to a dispute, then it may be unwise to become involved as those affected may perceive you as being biased.
4 Follow policy and procedure
When dealing with a formal complaint, it is vital that company policies and procedures are followed and roles and responsibilities are clearly assigned. It is always advisable to make sure that an investigation is as independent as possible and undertaken by someone suitably qualified.
If you are responsible for deciding, what, if any, disciplinary penalty needs to be imposed, you must be separate from the investigatory process. The aftermath of complaints and investigations can have a negative impact on a team’s morale and performance so, as a leader, it’s important that you develop your skills to identify what team-building initiatives need to be employed.
5 Lead by example
Dealing appropriately with complaints of workplace bullying can result in a positive resolution for all those involved. To minimise such incidents occurring, lead by example. Be fair with everyone and set the standards for them to follow. Create a positive code of conduct in conjunction with staff, as this will help to provide a reference point by which to judge behaviour and promote a culture of dignity within the workplace.
Fergus Roseburgh is owner of UK Workplace Bullying
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