There are many different perspectives on bullying. There isn’t a legal definition for bullying per se. And the definitions harassment and victimisation are linked to those protected characteristics identify in The Equality Act 2010. Although there isn’t a legal definition, bullying is absolutely recognised by employment tribunals.
Whilst ACAS identifies what bullying typically looks like, the reality is that the experience of bullying will be subjective and personal to the individual. Some people are able to withstand the experience, whilst for others the experience can be utterly devastating. It can impact not only our working lives, but the lives of our family and friends. So understanding the causes and identifying where it may be happening is critical to stopping it occurring in the first place.
Before we explore further, it is important to recognise that there can often be a conflicting view about whether ‘robust’ management is bullying or not. Historically in the public sector, we have not always been good at managing people’s performance at work and there have been periods in people’s career where they have not been well managed. This is not acceptable, but it is also not acceptable for managers not to be able to manage people’s behaviour without worrying that they will be accused of being a bully.
So what are some of the causes then of bullying? Well we need to think about the following:
- Does everyone in the organisation understand what bullying, harassment and victimisation means – not only in the context of legal definitions but in terms of organisation values?
- Do our leaders, managers and employees understand what good performance looks like?
- Are we providing sufficient training and support for our leaders and managers so that they are able to manage and support employees effectively?
- Are we clear about the types of behaviours we are prepared to reward – are we unwittingly encouraging people to treat others poorly?
- Are we consistently addressing poor behaviour when it happens?
- Do HR (and other) processes get in the way and prevent people from raising issues?
- Do our organisations really understand the cost of bullying, harassment and victimisation – and if not why not?
- Do we have in built biases that prevent us from recognising when things are going wrong?
- What does it take to create a culture that does not accept poor behaviour across all roles in the organisation?
- Do we sometimes use lack of resources, financial pressures to abdicate our responsibility to ensure we are treating everyone fairly?
We can safely say that we know we have an issue with bullying, harassment and victimisation across public services. For every high profile newspaper and TV headline stories, there are many many others HR & OD practitioners know of where people have just left organisations because they felt they were being treated unfairly. And we also know from settlement agreements that employers know there are problems but do not want the issues to become public.
Bullying, harassment and victimisation impacts an organisations culture, performance, finances and reputation. All of that is pretty shameful. But it also impacts:
- an individual’s capacity to recover, trust, rebuild a career, support their family and so on
- a perpetrators capacity to change if their organisation is not addressing their behaviour
- employees confidence in speaking truth to power
- the role of HR & OD and whether they are seen to be an advocate for employees as well as undertake their responsibility for managing people risk for the organisation as a whole
- the organisations confidence in whether leadership and managers role model good behaviour – i.e. they walk the talk
- service users and whether they are getting the best service they should.
It is rarely the case that there is only one cause or only one incident of bullying in an organisation. The research we are undertaking will help us better understand the scope of the issue across public services, the causes and help us propose what we can do about it.
You can access our research page here.
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