Bullying and how to deal with it

Conflict specialist Jane Gunn talks about some of the main issues around bullying at work and what you can do if you are being bullied.

Woman sitting at office desk looks worried as if she is bullied


It is not uncommon for someone to be bullied within an organisation for several years before it is tackled because the issues around bullying are increasingly complex, according to internationally renowned mediator and conflict specialist, Jane Gunn, especially if the bully is your boss or someone in HR.

Next week is anti-bullying week and Gunn, who is also formerly a corporate lawyer, outlines below some of the main issues around bullying at work in 2021-2022 and explains what to do if you are being bullied at work.

Bullying at work is so complex. It can start small, and it can be difficult to know at what stage you should start to tackle it. Bullying can be actioned by one person or several. It can be systemic within the organisation. Those who are being bullied know that talking about it can make it better, but can sometimes also make it worse. Bullying comes in many forms, whether it is physical, cyber, verbal, prejudicial, sexual, or exclusion by spreading rumours and ostracising from a group. Whilst bullying is often seen as an abuse of power, it is also a catalyst for conflict and can result in an escalation of negative behaviours including gossiping, sabotage and an aggressive or passive aggressive stance.

How can you report bullying, especially if the bully is your boss? The bully can be the very person you have been told to report or make complaints to, as your boss or someone in HR. This is especially difficult if you work in a small business and there is no one else to go to. Most larger businesses will have a framework and a safe process to manage bullying complaints, but that protocol won’t work if the bully is part of the safe space. The person being bullied is more likely to see no alternative but to leave the company.

Bullying is systemic. In research conducted in 2020 by employment law specialists Kew Law, over 70 per cent of employees said they had been bullied or witnessed bullying at work within the last three years.

Current issues about bullying facing the workplace

So what are some of the issues that contribute to bullying problems and are they getting worse?

If we ask those bullied to have a little black book to keep evidence about their experiences, there is a danger of not addressing bullying early on and losing the potential to deal with it before there is no way back. If the bullied person stores up issues without sharing them for an extended period, the bully themselves can feel aggrieved because they may have no idea where a complaint may be coming from and feel they didn’t have a chance to address it. Most people who collate their evidence are already looking for a way to leave the company, by building a case to leave with compensation.

Some aspects of the current work environment can complicate things. For instance, virtual/ hybrid appraisals are very challenging and often are not handled well. Poor eye contact, missing verbal cues and technology distractions have come into play for many people who might have used their appraisal as an ideal opportunity to share issues they are facing at work like bullying.

Another issue is that many people are being bullied out of their job by being ground down until they leave so that the company can avoid paying a redundancy package. This is worryingly becoming increasingly common practice.

Moreover, a toxic culture which accepts bullying as a way for those in power to sharpen their tools and stay at the top is still very much part of City life in particular.

Whilst we hope the pandemic has helped us address work/life balance and has encouraged us to push for an open, inclusive, psychologically safe workplace culture, this has yet to really been seen widely.

How bullying affects the workplace

The impact of bullying is rarely transitory and can have a long-lasting effect on self-confidence, self-esteem, our ability to function and our physical and mental health, often inducing anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, hypertension, stress and depression. Bullied employees are likely to perform at a lower standard, have diminished concentration, decreased productivity and feel unable to make decisions. These employees lose further time at work thinking up ways to defend themselves, planning how to deal with future run-ins, avoiding the bully, networking for support, ruminating over past confrontations and logging evidence. The effects don’t just go away at the end of the work day and can go on to affect the whole family.

Equally there can be long-term damage to the business by creating a hostile culture which may affect productivity, employee engagement and creativity, talent retention and public perception, as well as diversity and inclusion.

What you can do if you are being bullied

1. Know the signs of bullying and tell someone. Take a deep breath and have that incredibly courageous conversation with someone that you trust. Recognising you are being bullied and drawing a line in sand by talking about it is a good way to start to work through it.

2. Know your legal rights and what the route is at work to handle this. Harassment is considered unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, whilst bullying sadly is not, but that does not make it acceptable. Find out what your workplace policy is for reporting and handling bullying. Your organisation should have a strong policy and procedures in place to deal with this professionally and safely.

3. If possible, try to talk to the person who is bullying you. If you postpone a difficult conversation, the situation will get far worse later on down the line, potentially going beyond resolution. There are different levels of bullying, and whilst all are unacceptable, problems can sometimes start with a miscommunication or misunderstanding, like sending an email with the wrong tone. If the issue is not brought out into the open, the situation can fester. Try to stay as factual as possible reporting actual instances that occurred whilst explaining how this behaviour makes you feel.

4. Follow procedure and talk to someone you trust at work. If you don’t feel comfortable talking face to face with the bully, or you have tried and it hasn’t worked, share your concerns with someone senior at work who you trust and follow the protocol that should be in place to support you.

5. Record evidence. It is wise to document everything that ensues during your interactions with the bully, particularly once you have tried talking to them, if that has been possible. It provides you with a concrete timeline and ensures you have an accurate account of everything that has happened. Save emails, log encounters and take screenshots of messages. Make a note of what was said or done, the date, time and location and if there were any witnesses who might be willing to support your evidence.

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