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Gautier: Clearly define bullying to stop it

Having a clear definition of workplace bullying can help prevent it, according to chartered psychologist and academic Chantal Gautier

Speaking at St John Ambulance’s Embedding Mental Health Best Practices in the Workplace Summit 2018, the senior lecturer at the University of Westminster said that, while there are policy barriers to taking formal action against bullying, having a clear understanding of what actually constitutes bullying can help.

“If we want to stop bullying, first we need to have a definition of what bullying is. It is a form of abuse where the person is submissive to the perpetrator. It is deliberate, consistent attempts to humiliate, intimidate, offend and undermine someone,” she said.

Employers have an obligation to stop bullying under the health and safety act, but because of its complex nature, it can be difficult to raise a formal complaint, she said: “The problem is that a lot of bullying is relational; it becomes a grey area where it’s their word against ours. This also means that it often doesn’t fall under the legal definition of harassment, so it can be hard to make a formal complaint.”

Researchers used to believe that bullies had lower IQs than other people, Gautier said. But this has been disproved. "We actually know now that bullies tend to have a very high level of social processing skills, which means that they are very good at understanding social cues. They are often insecure, they are manipulative, and driven by status,” she said.

“This psychological intelligence means that they can easily put themselves in someone else’s shoes; it’s just that they have a total lack of empathy.”

Gautier added that there are traits bullies look for when targeting someone. Victims are often people who lack a support network at work, feel insecure about their job, and often have something “a bit different” about them.

Tackling bullying in competitive cultures can prove challenging, but there are signs HR can look out for, said Gautier: “It has to come from the top. But we know that in highly competitive cultures sometimes bullies can be enabled, so what can we do?

“There are signs we can look for: has someone changed their behaviour? Do they seem anxious? Are they being excluded from social events or decisions? Are they not as engaged in their job?”

HR and business leaders have a duty to prevent bullying, Gautier stressed: “HR and employers have a moral duty to stop bullying. We absolutely have the choice to turn a blind eye or to fight it.”