Upwards bullying in the workplace


I doubt whether any HR professional would disagree that any kind of bullying and harassment in the workplace is harmful to the victim’s health and wellbeing, odious in the extreme and not to be tolerated.


It is also clear that the body of discrimination legislation that has grown up over the last 40 years, as now consolidated in the Equalities Act, has been both vital and powerful in setting boundaries for how people should behave in terms of non-discriminatory behaviour towards others at work.

However, it would seem that something in the way that legislation has been understood and applied has given rise far too often to a set of unintended consequences.

In my own workplace we have very advanced structures of support for managers in applying procedures properly and fairly. Yet despite this, in a recent managers’ meeting a number of them admitted that they had held back from tackling certain individuals for their underperformance because they are very adept at implying that the manager’s reasons for pulling them up are discriminatory in some way.

I regularly train managers working in voluntary and public services in managing poor standards of performance, conduct and attendance.  It saddens me that I have to warn them that they will very likely be unjustly accused at least once in their careers of harassment and bullying, most likely on the grounds of one or more of the protected characteristics. This has become an occupational hazard of line management

Working with a variety of organisations, I have too often seen a manager’s health and mental stability severely taxed when they have been investigated for bullying, discrimination and harassment because of the way the law is applied. If an organisation fails to investigate – however obvious it may be in a particular case that the allegations are a defence tactic and a smokescreen on the part of an employee who wants to shift the focus away from their own shortcomings – then it is at significant risk of being found guilty of discrimination if the vexed employee goes to ET.

Not infrequently I have been asked by managers placed in this position whether they can take a counter-grievance about being falsely accused of bullying and discriminatory behaviour.  As tempted as I have been to say ‘yes, go for it’, I invariably have to advise them that in reality this is a hiding to nothing. They just have to put up with the stigma and duress until a thorough investigation is done and, as is so often the case, nothing found against them.

I admit it isn’t easy to come up with an answer as to how we can achieve the balance between ensuring people with legitimate grievances about bullying or discriminatory treatment are supported and heard and preventing these rights being used as a stick with which to beat managers who are simply doing their jobs properly.  But there needs to be more open airing and debate of these very real issues without people feeling that by raising it they are somehow anti-equalities.  Apart from anything else, it is not only the manager in this kind of situation who suffers but also the employee who seeks refuge in perceptions that someone else doesn’t like them because of who they are rather than face up to the fact that they need to accept feedback and support to do their jobs better.

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