The Elephant in the Room: Loan Elephants – Bullying

Do you remember the school bully?

If so, why?

To misquote Maya Angelou, “It’s not what they said, but how they made you feel”. You forget the actual words, but you are left with the feelings. This is true whether the words are positive or negative and their impact can be felt for years.

Bullying in the workplace is no different.

To think it doesn’t go on is naïve. It is less likely to be physical, like a school bully, but is probably verbal and behavioural. Calling someone stupid, making reference to their appearance, perhaps their dress sense or smell, are all forms of bullying we see in the workplace usually between colleagues. Bullying from a line manager, often manifests itself as over-management, the setting of unachievable targets, being given the tasks which no one else wants or being made to work late.

There are lots of theories about why people bully others, and these often include jealousy, something which has happened to the bully in the past or the lack of ability to express themselves in any other way. Whatever the cause, in the workplace bullying is illegal and all employers must take a zero tolerance approach to bullying of all kinds.

As an employer, you cannot have eyes and ears everywhere, so you need to have a culture of zero tolerance and a policy to underpin it.

Culture is really important when dealing with issues such as bullying, harassment or victimisation. If you have a culture which ensures all staff feel supported and able to report unacceptable incidents, you are less likely to encounter those behaviours in the workplace as no bully wants to get caught.

“What you permit, you promote. What you allow, you encourage. What you condone, you own.

It is important to remember, that intention is irrelevant, it is the perception which matters. A manager may feel that they are managing a poor performer, which they are completely entitled to do, but the employee may perceive it as bullying. So, who is right and who is wrong? This may come down to not what you do i.e. manage someone who is struggling, but how you do it. Not every line manager is a natural manager and as a business owner, you need to ensure that your managers have the skills and experience required to manage effectively and get the most from their staff without their team feeling bullied.

If there are allegations of bullying, you must follow your policies and procedures and carry out a full investigation, speaking to witnesses and taking statements. Although this process may be long and drawn out, you need the evidence before going to a disciplinary. It has been known for the manager to face accusations of bullying, when in fact it was the direct report who was the bully and was using the situation to their advantage. As a business owner, it is important that your investigator is impartial. In small businesses, it is sometimes hard to find someone impartial or who is independent of the situation. In these cases, we recommend an external investigator such as your HR consultant, business coach or accountant. If you end up in an employment tribunal defending claims of bullying or harassment, you must be able to demonstrate that you have followed a fair and robust process.

When dealing with bullying claims, there is rarely a win:win, so as the business owner, you always need to be thinking about how would you defend a claim if you end up with one.

One of the most effective ways of dealing with bullying accusations is through mediation. This is best done with an external third party mediator, but can be done effectively with a ‘let’s get everyone round the table’ type chat. Bringing people together and getting them to talk about how behaviours have made them feel, is a very powerful way of addressing the issue, ensuring that the ‘victim’ feels supported and the ‘bully’ understands that their behaviour has been noted and is unacceptable. The aim is to achieve an agreement whereby the two parties are able to work effectively together so that they are both happy at work and are effective in their roles.

As the employer or line manager, your role is to create an environment where everyone feels respected, safe and protected in a physically and psychologically healthy and safe environment.

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