Dealing with bullying in the workplace

by The FindLaw Team

In recent years, many employers have had to deal with accusations of bullying in their workplace. “Bullying” is an emotive term and is sometimes used incorrectly. However, all too often an employee is being singled out and bullied at work by another worker, supervisor, or manager.

There are a number of steps that employers can take to reduce the likelihood of bullying and deal with it if it arises.

Policy

The first step is to issue a clear policy about bullying that:

  • Outlines behaviour that is not acceptable;
  • Defines what bullying is and how it may make the target feel;
  • States that bullying will not be tolerated and will be considered to be serious misconduct, for which an employee may be dismissed; and
  • States what someone should do if they think they are being bullied, including how to make a complaint, who to make it to, and how the complaint will be handled.
  • All employees should be made aware of this policy.

 

Recruitment

A robust, thorough screening process, especially when recruiting managers, team leaders and supervisors, can help to avoid giving a bully a job. The screening process is likely to include testing and questioning job candidates in ways that identify typical bullying personality traits.
It is also important to get references by speaking to previous employers and asking pertinent questions such as “How would you describe Candidate X’s leadership style?” and “How did Candidate X relate to different members in the team?”.

Training and performance management

All staff should be trained in the policies and procedures for workplace bullying. Additional training will be needed for those in management and leadership roles, including training in conflict management and in how to recognise and deal with bullying incidents. All people managers should be encouraged and reminded to be alert to bullying.

It is also a good idea to include workplace conduct and behaviour in performance appraisals, for example, if a team performed well, ask the manager how they managed the team to get these results. Performance appraisals that incorporate 360 degree feedback (which includes feedback on a manager’s performance from the team that they manage) can give bullied employees an opportunity to raise their concerns.

Complaint handling

There should be robust complaints procedures in place, with a named person who acts as a “workplace bullying officer” or something similar, and to whom complaints can be made. Employees may be given the option of raising the issue with their immediate manager, but should never be compelled to do so as in many cases, it is the immediate manager who is the problem. Managers, HR staff, and whoever acts as the workplace bullying officer should all be trained in how to handle complaints of bullying.

If a complaint is made, immediate action must be taken. The first thing to do is to protect the person who complained from the person who they have complained about. A full and fair investigation should then be carried out, by an impartial person who approaches the investigation with an open mind.

Expert consensus suggests that mediation is not an effective way of dealing with a true case of bullying. Mediation suggests that both parties have failings that need to be resolved. In actual fact, bullying is a failing on the part of the perpetrator only, and an attempt at making the target take responsibility for “putting it right” by mediation will almost certainly fail.

Having said that, in some cases a person who alleges that they have been bullied is actually a party to a personality clash with a colleague, and they may mistakenly label this as bullying. In the case of a personality clash, mediation may actually be helpful for the two parties to communicate and resolve their differences. Employers who are faced with a bullying allegation should therefore first of all determine whether it is a true case of bullying.

If the conclusion is that bullying has occurred, the bully must be dealt with appropriately. Depending on the circumstances, this may involve retraining and transferring the bully, or it may involve dismissal for serious misconduct. The accused person should be warned at the outset of the investigation that bullying is considered to be serious misconduct for which summary dismissal may be warranted.

The person who has been bullied should be protected from the person who bullied them and should be provided with support, such as counselling (eg through an Employee Assistance Programme).

Records should be kept of all bullying incidents, complaints made, investigations held, the results of investigations, and any actions taken.



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