How to beat the bully

26 February 2015 -


The bully is one of the most devastating forces in the workplace. Make sure you have the better of them

Ben Willis

The political comedy The Thick of It takes bullying in the workplace to its extreme, with each episode of backstabbing and internecine rivalry between hapless ministers and their bumbling officials more cringe-inducing than the last. But while the fictional spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker’s verbal eviscerations may be the stuff of high political satire, bullying affects more than the halls of Westminster and Whitehall. And it is often in subtler forms than Tucker’s foul-mouthed brand.

Bullying of all kinds can not only wreck the potential of its victims, it can devastate entire teams, and ruin the careers of managers who are unable to tackle it.

There may be repercussions beyond the workplace – as bullying typically causes its victims stress, employers have a legal duty to support employees at the receiving end, according to the Trades Union Congress.

And, where sexual or racial harassment are involved, bullying can be a criminal offence, with employers and/or the bully possibly facing fines or even jail sentences for any misdemeanours.

Whatever flavour of bullying your bully favours, you need to know how to beat them. CMI has produced a checklist to inform managers of how to deal with workplace bullying should it become a problem. Here are some of its top tips:

”Design out” bullying

Managers should create a management structure that leaves no room for bullying; through their actions and example they can make it clear that there is no place for bullying in your team.

To do this, they should be aware of any management styles or organisational culture that could create an environment in which bullying could flourish. For example, unrealistic targets or deadlines, inappropriate appraisal systems and poor management skills could all inadvertently encourage bullying.

Make staff aware

Opinions on what constitutes workplace bullying can differ among staff, so discussing it with your team can help improve employees’ understanding of what it is and how it manifests itself.

Before reading the riot act…

Managers should have a clear, official policy for dealing with bullying. But this should only be used as a last resort as it can make matters worse. According to Acas guidance on the subject, before invoking an official bullying policy, managers should first attempt to resolve any problems informally with the concerned parties through discussion and mediation.

Protect yourself with policy

But if attempts to resolve bullying problems without resorting to official procedure are unsuccessful, managers should make sure they have an official policy as a backup. According to CMI, a bullying policy should include:

Examples of unacceptable behaviour

A statement from senior management making bullying a disciplinary offence

Guidance for victims on bringing forward a complaint

Guidance for managers having to deal with the complaint

A summary of formal and informal procedures

Respect the bully

CMI stresses that the employee accused of bullying should be treated with respect, and that managers should avoid forming assumptions or judgements before fully understanding the facts of the case. But if, upon further investigation, “consistent, deliberate and malicious” bullying is found to have occurred, then the matter will become a disciplinary one, requiring the initiation of official procedures.

Stick to your guns

Because of the inherently confrontational nature of dealing with a bully, managers may try to avoid taking any action, for example by downplaying the importance of any complaint or suggesting that the complainant is being too sensitive. But CMI stresses that such avoidance responses are ultimately unhelpful, not least because the accused member of staff may continue with their problem behaviour to the extent that it could become a real liability for the whole organisation, not just an individual victim.

What is bullying?

CMI guidance defines workplace bullying as: “Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, or abuse or misuse of power, which violates the dignity of, or creates a hostile environment that undermines, humiliates, denigrates or injures, the recipient.”

Acas guidance defines workplace bullying as: “It can include the spreading of rumours, public ridiculing, overbearing supervision or sexual advances.”

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