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Could poor management be causing the rise in 'bullying'?

A survey revealed that six in 10 employees have either suffered or witnessed bullying in the workplace

Recently it was alleged that at Amazon workers are encouraged to tear apart each other’s ideas in meetings or criticise colleagues with anonymous reviews. A few days later a survey revealed that six in 10 employees have either suffered or witnessed bullying in the workplace.

The survey made frightening headlines and, if accurate, was a damning indictment on companies and managers.

But what do we mean by ‘bullying’?

There is no employment law definition of bullying. ACAS describes it as: ‘offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient'.

However, if an employee alleges bullying employers shouldn't assume that a culture of abuse has suddenly emerged. No-one finds it easy to accept that they have inadequacies – the normal reaction is that it has to be someone else’s fault. So if an employee is told he or she is performing poorly, too often this is then attributed to bullying by the manager. This is usually because previous managers have not addressed poor performance and always aimed to give staff good news rather than the truth.

Poor performers

One of the problems is that people are promoted based on their abilities in their chosen field. But how does that make them a good manager and what support has the business given to ensure that they can fulfil the role? Many approach leadership having only been managed by their untrained predecessor, and the problem is perpetuated. So business has to take some responsibility if there is increased perception of bullying, and ensure they give the right tools to their managers.

The more an employer talks to their workers in a fair, consistent and honest way, the fewer problems they will have and feelings of ‘bullying’. If the reports by the New York Times on Amazon's culture are true, then this crosses the line between healthy competition and encouraging bullying. Raising anonymous issues rather than discussing them directly with staff is extremely unhealthy and would undoubtedly be considered bullying.

Raising genuine grievances

In the UK it is a legal requirement for employment contracts to stipulate who a grievance should be raised with. HR is the best starting point, but employees cannot just ask for it to be ‘noted on the file’. If an HR professional is alerted to a problem of bullying then they should always investigate, especially if the behaviour reported is discriminatory such as racist or sexist comments. And remember that the person who has witnessed and reported discrimination will be protected from retaliation under the Equality Act.

If an employee is being bullied and this is not addressed by the business then they could leave and claim constructive dismissal. However, to avoid a reduction in compensation by 25% they are obliged to try and resolve matters through a grievance procedure and this is the employer’s chance to put things right.

Employers must deal fairly and consistently with bullying. If it is genuine abuse of power then this is potential gross misconduct and can result in dismissal. If it is poor management then training and mediation between the parties to get the relationship back on track works well. ACAS can help. You should consider moving the manager or the employee, depending on the size of the organisation and the nature of the issues.

Beverley Sunderland is managing director of Crossland Employment Solicitors