Have you got a bullying culture?

Written by Victoria Ramsden Tuesday 14 September 2021
An employer’s guide to identifying and tackling bullying behaviours in the workplace.
Angry manager shouting at employees

Bullying is a pervasive workplace issue, and it hasn’t gone away because many people are working from home. Nearly a third of people have been bullied at work, according to a 2015 YouGov poll on behalf of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). More recently, there have been a number of high-profile cases of alleged and confirmed bullying concentrated in the charity sector, including at organisations such as Unicef UK, Barnardo’s, St John Ambulance – and even Oxfam, which in April 2021 was suspended from accessing UK aid funding due to allegations of bullying.

With so much now known about the prevalence and impact of workplace bullying, and so many resources available to deal with it, why are there still so many instances of bullying?

I believe that the answer to this question is a lack of awareness of the leadership and managerial skills required to address ingrained bullying. Here’s a useful guide to help leaders identify and tackle their own unhelpful management styles and potential bullying behaviours in a supportive and non-judgemental way.

Let’s start off simply. What is bullying? Is it the same as harassment?

Bullying is different to harassment. Harassment is defined clearly in employment law, and there are extensive resources available to deal with it. However, there is no legal definition of bullying. Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label describes bullying as “an imbalance of power which is used to either defame, harass, intimidate or upset another person”.

The term has tended to infer that there is intent behind the bullying behaviour. However, in many cases, the bullying behaviour stems from a lack of experience, poor levels of self-awareness or a lack of support for healthier management styles. In many respects, the perpetrator can also be a victim of an outmoded management culture that has no place in the modern world of work.

In February 2021, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) reviewed its own guidance and now summarises bullying as “behaviour from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes someone feel uncomfortable”. This new wording is helpful as it removes any inference of intent.

What impact does bullying have?

Workplace bullying is clearly damaging, both to the individuals concerned and also to their organisations.

For individuals, bullying might result in stress, anxiety or depression, and the impact on one’s physical health can be stark. Some studies indicate that bullying results in a greater risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and strokes. One study even suggests that the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is 1.46 times higher for those experiencing bullying.

Bullying can also have a material impact on an organisation’s ability to deliver its goals. Projects can fail as a result of this kind of culture. Beyond this, potential effects can include higher absenteeism, high staff turnover and low levels of staff engagement, and an organisation may face direct financial costs from having to pay for legal advice or settlement claims.

How to identify bullying behaviour?

In my experience, there are three key things to watch out for to help determine if the behaviour in question constitutes bullying:

  • Duration: There is a difference between bullying and someone simply behaving in an upsetting way as a one-off occurrence.
  • Subject: If the behaviour in question is directed at an individual or a specific group, this could be considered bullying. However, if many people are experiencing it, it might just be an indication of a particular management style (albeit unhelpful and unpleasant).
  • Intent and impact: Intent is difficult to prove or disprove and moves into complex territory in legal terms. The critical point, though, is the impact that the bullying behaviour is having on the subject’s wellbeing and their ability to carry out their work. If someone is experiencing an adverse impact, then employers have a duty to take action.

Why do bullying behaviours occur?

Let’s take a look at some of the main reasons why bullying can occur in a work environment.

Workplace culture

Certain organisational cultures can cultivate or perpetuate bullying behaviours. These workplaces tend to have hierarchical “command and control” management structures that allow little scope for junior colleagues to contribute strategically or provide upward feedback. Bullying may arise in this sort of culture, for example, if a manager who is bullying a junior colleague is also experiencing similar behaviour from their own manager.

It is important to understand if your organisation has this kind of culture, as wider HR and organisational changes may be required.

Management style

Some managers find themselves in managerial roles with little or no training or support, perhaps having been promoted without any formal recruitment process to assess for managerial skills. In these cases, managers will only be able to draw on their own past experiences. If these have been directive, controlling, aggressive or uncollaborative, then it is possible that they will embody these behaviours themselves. Managers may not be aware of the impact of their own behaviour, or that alternative and more constructive management styles exist.

It is important to be aware of the scope for change before you take action. A poor management style can usually be improved with the right training and ongoing support.

Specific context

Some people may experience bullying from a manager that is unrepresentative of their previous experience with that individual. It may be that the manager is under a lot of pressure, either through work or in their personal life, which is causing them to behave in an unusual way.

When considering how to deal with this behaviour, reflect on whether the bullying has been continual or if it is being prompted by specific factors.


Unfortunately, some people are simply not suited to managerial roles. While training and support can usually improve unhelpful behaviours, and even raise emotional intelligence, some behaviours and beliefs may be so entrenched that they cannot be improved.

Here it is important to reflect on whether this person has previously demonstrated high levels of self-reflection and self-awareness. If so, then this may be an indication that their behaviour can be improved. If not, you will need to consider taking other steps.

How to address bullying behaviours?

Now we understand some of the main reasons why bullying can take place, let’s consider what can be done about it.

Awareness and acknowledgement

The first step is being aware of and acknowledging these issues. Take a moment to reflect on the language commonly used by leaders:

  • Is it questioning, engaging and inclusive, or is it assuming, directing and dismissive?
  • How much time is spent listening to others rather than speaking?
  • Who is frequently speaking in meetings, and who isn’t? Who isn’t even in the room?
  • Do leadership meetings encourage more junior members of staff to participate and share their expertise?

Judgement and blame

It is imperative not to apportion blame. The best leaders will accept their shortcomings honestly and with humility, and this sets the right environment for others to do the same. Removing blame will encourage positive dialogue to address bad behaviour.

Duty of care

Employers have a duty of care to all staff. Clear policies and procedures are essential, including informal measures for dealing with bullying behaviours. Employers must provide a safe space for those who feel they are being bullied, as well as ensuring that the perpetrator also feels supported.

Organisational structure

The structure of an organisation can greatly affect the management culture and the prevalence of bullying behaviours. The more traditional “command and control” structures have become outdated, with progressive organisations recognising the value of their greatest assets – their people.

Leadership and management skills

Leadership and management skills are too often neglected in favour of technical and professional skills. However, an exceptionally talented technical specialist doesn’t necessarily make a good leader or manager. When recruiting or promoting colleagues into leadership and management roles for the first time, employers should provide training to support new managers in areas such as team building, priority setting, conflict management and communication. This might mean enabling access to professional courses and qualifications. This is something that the CMI and its bank of resources can easily help with.

Culture and values

Organisations spend thousands on establishing their brand, vision, mission and values but often neglect the real culture within. There are a number of different ways to assess for cultural fit during the recruitment process, including psychometric or values-based interview techniques. Employers should be prepared to offer leadership and management training around company values for all colleagues who manage others.


Finally, many organisations engage business coaches to provide support at all levels of management. A coach can work with individuals or groups to change unhelpful behaviours by asking insightful questions that increase self-reflection and self-awareness. Coaches are often effective because they encourage people to generate the solutions themselves.


More resources

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Image: Shutterstock/imtmphot

Victoria Ramsden CMgr MCMI is a business performance coach and consultant. She works primarily with leaders in the third sector to help them identify and tackle unhelpful and damaging management styles. Find more information on her website.

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