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  • Writer's pictureLaura Atkinson

Building an Anti-Bullying Culture

As part of Anti-Bullying Week, we take a look at how organisations can address workplace bullying and harassment and go beyond that to build an anti-bullying culture and workplace that is safe, positive and healthy.

There’s no getting away from the fact that bullying can have a serious impact on an individual both at the time it is taking place and in the future. But what is bullying and harassment? Whilst there’s no single definition of bullying in law, ACAS describe it as:

“Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient”

The Equality Act 2010 defines harassment as:

“Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

Bullying and harassment can range from extreme forms of intimidation, such as physical violence, to more subtle forms such as inappropriate jokes / banter or ignoring someone. Regardless of the form or severity, employers need to ensure that they are aware of the possibility of it within the workplace and have a clear way of addressing it should cases occur.

ACAS reports that bullying at work costs the UK economy £18 billion a year through the costs of sickness related absence, staff turnover and loss of productivity. However, this figure does not include the human cost; living with the mental scars and lasting harm inflicted.

The website advises that employees should see if they can resolve issues around bullying or harassment informally at first. If they cannot, they should talk to their manager, human resources (HR) department or trade union representative. However, the CIPD reported at the start of 2020 that ¼ of all staff say workplace harassment is overlooked.

So what can organisations do to address this and build a culture that takes bullying and harassment seriously?

1. Robust policies and procedures. It’s important to make sure that your policies and procedures are up to date, compliant and clear. They should set out clearly the standards expected of colleagues and the process for people to raise concerns when those standards aren’t met. ACAS is a great place to start to ensure they are in line with best practice and the latest guidance. As we all know, it’s not enough to have a great policy that no-one has read. Make sure you have a communication schedule to inform people about your policies and expectations. For example, you could take 10-minutes at team meetings, on a rolling cycle, to remind people about key points from different policies and procedures.

2. Support your managers. Managers are likely to play a critical role in spotting and handling issues around workplace bullying and harassment. You need to train your managers and give them the tools to be able to shape a strong anti-bullying culture. If you’re going to adopt a best practice approach, just covering the basic is not enough. Managers will need an in-depth understanding of how to spot the signs and how to respond to, and manage, issues effectively. It is also worth considering training up a sizeable pool of investigators so that you build up your capability and capacity to handle complaints and allegations in a timely, decisive and robust way.

3. Listen hard. The concept that ‘you can only act on a concern if someone raises a formal complaint’ is (thankfully) dead in the water. The sad truth is, that if it takes a colleague to formally raise a complaint and it comes completely out of the blue, there’s a chance you’ve not been listening hard enough. Clearly some bullies are very good at covering their tracks. However, as an organisation you should be making sure that you have the right touchpoints to get early warning signals if something is going wrong. These might include staff engagement surveys, pulse surveys, exit interviews, 1-2-1 coffee catch ups with the CEO or an active employee voice forum. If you have these touchpoints, then work hard to listen to what people are saying and act on it. Far too often we hear of organisations that undertake exit interviews only for the data to disappear into a void rather than being used in a meaningful way.

4. Show leadership. As is often the case with issues that are endemically cultural, a strong approach has to be set out and role-modelled by the organisation’s leaders. Leaders should talk openly about the values of the organisation, expectations and behaviours. They should also be proactive in spotting and calling out things that are not ok - sometimes this might be privately and sometimes it might be in the moment. And when things go wrong leaders need to be bold and decisive in taking action. Gruenter & Whitaker said that “the culture of any organisation is shaped by the worst behaviour the leader is willing to tolerate". There is no room for leaders to brush unacceptable behaviours under the carpet or to explain them away as a ‘training need’. Obviously, everyone needs to be treated fairly and reasonably within any process, but ultimately the tone has to be set from the leadership.

If your organisation is looking to take positive steps around this, then ACAS provide some great resources and this short read from People Management also gives a useful perspective.

Like any culture change, creating an anti-bullying culture may not be easy. There may be bumps along the journey and some pain. But ultimately it will be worth it to create an environment where people feel they can be safe, happy and bring their whole selves to work.


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