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When did bullying stop being something that only happened in the playground?

Investigation 16th November 2018

It’s Anti-Bullying Week (12-16th November). Quite rightly the energy and activity of the organisers, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, is on the experience of young people. But bullying is now just as much synonymous with workplaces as with problems at school.

When health and safety reps were asked about the most common issues they have to deal with, the TUC was told that stress came top, bullying and harassment second. And bullying in the public sector in particular – cited by 80% of reps as their biggest challenge.

It’s a paradox for UK employers. The more effort and investment that goes into employee health and wellbeing, the worse the figures around stress and bullying seem to get. The public sector is, again, a prime example. In its Health and Wellbeing survey for 2018, the CIPD acknowledged the public sector had made the most progress: 61% had a standalone wellbeing strategy (compared with 36% in the private sector); 68% agreed employee wellbeing was on their senior leaders’ agendas (51% for the private sector) and 55% that line managers are ‘bought into the importance of wellbeing’ (44% private sector). But still it’s in the public sector where reports of bullying are most prevalent – and high-profile. The BBC Newsnight investigation into a culture of bullying and abuse of power over House of Commons staff continues to send shockwaves around the entire organisation.

The problem with employer attempts to deal with bullying of staff is that they are too blunt. There’s condemnation. Everyone agrees that if there are any cases – although many organisations will assume it’s unlikely in their backyard – they should be stamped on hard.

All this approach does is make it even harder for employees to speak up. An embarrassing, hurtful, sensitive situation is made even more difficult, more serious. Staff keep it to themselves because they can’t see or imagine a positive resolution – it involves too much potential for blame on both side – until the burden becomes unbearable and there’s a crisis. Bullies just work harder to make sure nothing is seen or noticed, that all they’re doing stays under the radar.

– Organisations need to open up, encourage more honesty, more conversations that deal with root issues of power and inequality – in other words, making constructive challenge a normal and healthy part of the workplace culture. HR need to ask whether their systems and approach are fair and just, do they lead to the kind of confidence that encourages a victim to come forward.

– Having a ‘Clear Air’ culture of open conversations in the workplace, is important for supporting good working practices as well as helping minor issues come to the surface and be resolved early. It also acts as a fundamental way to discourage inappropriate behaviour, pressures and secrecy.

– Ensure there are clear policies in place to respond quickly and build trust. Employees need to feel confidence in the organisation’s response: they will be listened, their concerns dealt with appropriately; that there are trained staff able to provide bullying mediation if necessary; and if the situation demands it, there will be an investigation, carried out professionally and impartially; and that the organisation is open, fair and reasonable in everything it does.


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