Ensuring assertiveness is not seen as bullying

Where is the line between being 'passionate' and 'bullying'? Between 'expressing strong opinions' and being 'aggressive'?

It has been a tough couple of months for the UK government.

Coronavirus aside, bullying allegations against Priti Patel are rife in the press. While the allegations have been strongly denied at Westminster they raise a question for employers: where is the line between being a ‘passionate’ or ‘assertive’ manager requiring your employees to ‘pull out all the stops’ or being ‘overly aggressive’ or a ‘bully’ who has created an atmosphere of fear in the workplace?

Bullying is defined by ACAS as 'offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied'.

The Health and Safety Executive emphasises this is a pattern of behaviour rather than isolated instances. It can take many shapes or forms, including insults or intentional embarrassment, excluding or ignoring employees, unwarranted personal or professional criticism, overworking, and threatening behaviour.

A typical problem is when an employer’s demands are perceived as bullying by employees.

In Patel’s case it reads as if her desire to deliver on government promises was the focus, irrespective of the impact her approach had on staff.

Allegations of 'swearing, belittling people, and making unreasonable and repeated demands' are very typical allegations raised in employment cases concerning bullying, as they are with Patel.

How an employer’s message is delivered to its employees is key. If the message is perceived as overly aggressive it can have detrimental effects, including:

  • Poor employee productivity. Productivity improves when everyone gets along, rather than throwing each other under the bus.
  • Hostile working environment. A negative atmosphere can be awful for motivation levels. Low morale is infectious and can be difficult to remove.
  • Inefficiency. When feeling threatened or bullied people struggle to focus. Trying to get the best out of people by fear will not work – employees will be successful and thrive if they are supported.
  • High staff turnover/difficulty replacing staff. Not only could you lose people, but if news spreads about a hostile environment in your workplace you'll struggle to attract new talent.
  • Employment tribunal claims. Ultimately the hostile environment can lead to employment tribunal claims such as constructive dismissal and discrimination, which can be very expensive and time-consuming to both defend and compensate.

The risk is always there for all employers, however there are steps that can be taken to make such situations a rarity:

From a HR perspective

  • Have a policy in place for behaviour in the workplace. Ensure the policy does not just gather dust on the shelf.
  • Provide people management training to your managers and ensure they have different soft skills when dealing with their teams.
  • Manage discipline and grievances at work.
  • Manage absences effectively. Victims of bullying often try and spend time away from the workplace. Ensure you know the reasons for their absence so that any issues can be resolved at an early stage.
  • Provide HR training to managers on things like having difficult conversations with their teams (e.g. concerns about productivity, performance, attitude etc.).

Focus on creating a positive workplace culture

  • Make the company's core values clear. A message for employees at every level to help decision-making, opportunity identification and risk management. What's important to your business? Let people know.
  • Be transparent when communicating goals and targets; don't let any changes spread around the office like idle gossip. Staff want to know what you want from them and what is expected in terms of performance results. Make sure there's a structure in place so everyone is made aware.
  • Offer praise/support and be constructive when there are issues with an employee’s delivery on work or performance. Motivating someone can be as simple as telling your employee when they've done a good job. If there are issues, raise them with the individual from the outset and work with them so they can achieve their goals.
  • Get employee feedback. If you want to know how happy people are at work the best way is to ask them. Everyone likes to know their opinion is valued.
  • Look at ways to improve staff morale. Encourage team spirit by planning activities that get everyone to work together and build strong connections.

I’m not saying all of the above steps are easy. They take time to implement and there will be instances where employees do not fit into your environment and need to be moved on. External advice will be required but ensuring that these issues are nipped in the bud at an early stage and not allowed to manifest should reduce your risk.

Likewise, there may be instances where the bully is actually the victim of misogyny (as could be the case with Patel). Having clear processes in place and always approaching the situation with an open mind should ensure that the right decision is made for both the business and its affected staff.

Ross Meadows is partner and head of the HR and employment team at Oury Clark Solicitors