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Call Out Corporate Bullying

Why is it on the increase, and what can you do about it?

cc Wikimedia Commons/Jacklee


Ed Midson and Careece Donaldson are specialists in transforming corporate cultures and often encounter bullying behaviour in organisations they work with. Here they look at why workplace bullying is on the rise and, below, give advice for dealing with it in whatever role you encounter it, be that victim, witness, manager or perpetrator.


Companies and other organisations are increasingly aware that bullying doesn’t just happen to children and at schools, so why is an authoritative new study suggesting “workplace bullying is on the rise”? And what can you do if you know or suspect it’s happening in your workplace?


The paper, 'Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces', was released by Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) and “looked at the latest research on workplace bullying as well as calls to the Acas helpline from employers and employees.” As corporate Change Consultants, we specialise in transforming workplace culture, leadership, team dynamics and career transitioning. This often involves assisting organisations and their people in identifying and transforming corporate bullying and its associated impacts.


Workplace bullying is difficult to monitor. It can be hard enough to spot in its most recognised, top-down incarnation - as Sir Brendan Barber, Acas Chair, says, “...managers sometimes dismiss accusations around bullying as simply personality or management style clashes” - but bullying can also occur side-to-side and even bottom up, with some employees managing to bully their managers.


Bullying behaviour at work can be anything that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended and can include acts of sabotage, exclusion, victimisation or other unfair treatment, spreading malicious rumours, insulting someone, or consciously subjecting a worker to relentless criticism. When at work, victims of bullying understandably show sharp declines in productivity and, being in what they perceive as an oppressive atmosphere, are unable to perform effectively, distracted, demoralised and demotivated. You can’t expect these people to voluntarily go the extra mile or extend their working hours.


Of course organisational culture matters: Behaviour that’s acceptable in the armed forces or high pressure, results-driven environments (such as politics and some areas of media, finance and sport) would not be appropriate in, say, a nursery, a hospital or even a regular office.


You might have hoped, with society in general becoming kinder, gentler and less violent, that workplace bullying would be in retreat and not rising. Some of the rise found in the Acas survey must be down to greater awareness, and some might be attributable to today’s workers being more sensitive than before, as well as some employees realising that ‘sensitivity’ can pay. But the current uncertain economic climate is reckoned to be responsible for much of the rise - and for employees’ fear of speaking out.


Once reported, bullying can be difficult for both employers and employees to evidence, especially as many corporate bullies can use astute articulation and clever manipulation to confuse their behaviour with leadership and the employee’s response with oversensitivity or misinterpretation. Further complicating this, managers usually have established, often formal, relationships with members of the Human Resources team, possibly giving them an advantage over bullied employees who have little or no dealings with the HR department.


It’s not surprising therefore that, when corporate bullying results in someone leaving an organisation, 75% of the time it’s the victim and only 25% the bully, and that 30% of people who are bullied resign, as do 20% of witnesses to bullying, increasing turnover of good workers and damaging an organisation’s morale, culture and productivity, as well as potentially its reputation and bottom line. Acas Chair Sir Brendan Barber says “the annual economic impact of bullying-related absences, staff turnover and lost productivity is estimated to be almost £18 billion" in the UK.


How do you distinguish assertiveness from aggression, dynamic management from bullying? Assertiveness is often considered open communication that respects other’s rights and needs, aggression is open communication that doesn’t. So an effective leader recognises and respects people’s situations, values and feelings, remaining polite and insightful of others’ opinions and thoughts whilst being assertive. Poor managers usually have underdeveloped or ill-used Emotional Intelligence, and place little or no concern on others’ thoughts and emotions. They rarely react well to differences of opinion or hearing the word ‘no’, and when acting ‘assertively’ are demanding and interpreted as aggressive.


So how are you at work? Where do you see yourself in all this? And, how do think your colleagues perceive you? If we were to conduct a full and thorough 360-degree assessment of how others perceive you, meaning everyone you deal with feeds back how they find you, how confident would you feel? Are you more victim than victor, bully than brilliant?


If you’re being bullied

You may not initially even realise you’re being bullied, but if you feel someone else’s behaviour is inappropriate or it leaves you feeling uncomfortable, you have three options: do nothing, attempt to resolve the situation or leave your role, department or even organisation. Whichever option you take, only three sorts of results are possible: nothing changes, things improve or things get worse.


If you choose to do nothing and nothing changes, you’ll continue suffering indefinitely. Maybe things will improve eventually, maybe they’ll get worse but the longer you’re bullied, the more sensitive to it you’ll become and you’ll have learned little else about combating these issues for the future.


If you attempt to resolve the situation, we recommend first you address the issue with the individual whose behaviour you object to. As in so many other areas of life, how you approach this is crucial. You’ll have to find the means to get yourself out of the ‘victim space’ you’ll inevitably feel you’re in, figure out a positive approach to mending the relationship and set some goals for how you want things to change.


This takes objective support, whether from a co-worker, friend or outside professional, so think about who’s the best person to empower you in a positive way and ask for their help. You may not recognise it, but you need it!


Once you’re in a more powerful frame of mind, find an appropriate time to have a private and positively framed discussion with the person with whom you want to transform your relationship. During this discussion make sure you get their full agreement on the steps you’ll both take to improve the situation. Include who’ll do what, how’ll you both be with each other in the future and an agreement to review the situation periodically.


Hold up your end of the bargain.


Assuming you achieve all this, nothing will change or it will get better or worse.


If nothing changes or things get worse, you can go back and have another private and positively framed discussion. If that still doesn’t work the next step is to report the matter to Human Resources - or you can skip this and go to the third option - leave (also known as the ‘lose-lose-lose’ option - see below).


Most Human Resource policies and procedures in this area will require that you first attempt to resolve the situation with the individual concerned. As you’ll have done this already, unless HR can resolve the issue informally, your next step may be to invoke a grievance procedure. If you choose to take this step, be aware the procedure often feels uncomfortable, can further damage the relationship and is unlikely to be upheld in quite the way you think it should be. You might have few other options but you may consider yourself fortunate if a grievance procedure improves the situation.


Which brings us to the third, ‘lose-lose-lose’, option: leaving the situation. You, the victim, lose out because you haven’t learned to deal with the situation successfully, and could well find yourself in the same situation in future. Your organisation loses your technical skills, knowledge of the job and organisation and all the other value you add, and loses at successfully detecting and dealing with bullying, whilst leaving in place a continuing threat to others, productivity and the bottom line. And the bully loses the opportunity to develop personally and professionally, most likely continuing to treat people in the same way.


If you witness inappropriate behaviour
First check with the person you perceive as the victim - they may have interpreted the behaviour differently, for example as banter. If they feel the same way as you, empower them to speak with the other individual in a positive and powerful manner and, if that fails, be sure to back up any complaints they may make.


If you’re a business leader or HR professional
Because bullies won't ‘come out’ and victims don't speak out, the onus is on you, the employer, to detect inappropriate behaviour. Sensitive yet thorough assessment, strong enough to penetrate defensive silos, is vital so you can understand the scale of the issue, as is a culture that encourages reporting of inappropriate behaviour and that deals with it fairly and consistently. The next step, if required, is corrective action. As specialists in this area we recommend a 3-R approach: Research, Remedy and Review.


Research: We begin with engaging all staff in a wide-ranging cultural analysis. We design and conduct this to evaluate all aspects of employees’ behaviour and feelings and to inherently expose at what levels, and to what extent, bullying exists in an organisation. If an issue exists in the leadership team, we conduct a robust, leadership-focussed Emotional Intelligence assessment - preferably with a 360-degree feedback element. If the issue is in the rest of the workforce, we conduct personality profiling to establish a behavioural landscape for the organisation.


Remedy: The next step is to pull together all of the research findings and design a remedial strategy. We then develop interventions to deliver this strategy, including specific training, mentoring and/or coaching, and deploy these elements until employees fully adopt and implement them.


Review: We monitor effectiveness closely throughout the change process and upon completion of deployment we repeat the cultural survey to ensure we’ve achieved our client’s desired results. We always recommend clients regularly refresh and/or repeat cultural surveys and other related assessments.


If you’re perceived as a bully

At work we not only have a responsibility to conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner, we must also be responsible, at least to an extent, for how we’re perceived and received by others - especially those we have to work most closely alongside.


If you’re accused of bullying, defending your actions is understandable but ill-advised. Instead, make every effort to mend the relationship. Even if you didn’t intend your fellow worker(s) to feel discomfort, it’s far easier to retract a statement than to expect someone else to “get over it”. This isn’t to say you should always take full responsibility, but these situations are more easily defused if you’ll agree to take some.


If you feel you’re being interpreted as a bully but haven’t been accused of it - yet - our advice is to take a proactive, yet mild, approach to resolving the situation before it escalates or becomes irreparable. If this feels too challenging, get help from HR or an outside professional.


Bullying behaviour can occur in every type of group and rarely disappears of its own accord. We can only challenge it by having the courage to speak out wherever we encounter it and whatever role we play in it. Unless we do, nothing will ever change.

Ed Midson & Careece Donaldson

About the Writer

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Ed and Careece are part of Midson Consulting's team. Visit their website to find out more about their work.


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