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David Taylor: Bullying: time for a climate change?

Tuesday 17 November 2015

In the build up to the 16th November, I found myself inadvertently referring to 'national bullying week'. But clumsy slip aside, is there enough 'anti' in our approach to the problem of bullying at work and, if not, what more can be done?

David Taylor

David Taylor

David is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Strategy Unit at Acas.

Some of the recent headlines might make you draw the conclusion that the problem is getting out of control. Acas' new policy discussion paper 'pdf icon Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces [429kb]' certainly reinforces what many people have reported - that bullying in the workplace appears to be on the increase - and we are acutely aware that many callers to our helpline are afraid to mention their experiences to someone at work in case it makes matters worse.

At the same time, it should be emphasised that many employers recognise that bullying is a serious problem - not just for individuals but for their businesses too - and are taking action to do something about it. In fact, anti-bullying policies are widespread in organisations across the UK. These offer a vital safety net for when things go wrong - but policies can only take you so far.

A key message in Acas' new paper is that bullying most commonly occurs where there is a 'poor workplace climate'. The prevailing ethos in an organisation can create a potential breeding ground for unwanted conduct and attitudes: "traits associated with bullying may not be displayed unless brought to life in workplace environments in which the bullying behaviour is ignored, tacitly encouraged or seen as positive". And if people don't trust that the problem will be taken seriously, they're less likely to flag up bullying behaviour - even where an anti-bullying policy is in place.

Another issue is that policies will usually place the onus firmly on the bullied individual to pursue their grievance and try and seek redress. But there are all sorts of reasons why individuals may decide against taking that step - from embarrassment, to not wanting to be seen as a troublemaker, to feeling intimidated, to a fear of reprisal for speaking up.

So Acas' advice to organisations would be "stick with the policies, but rather than just reacting to negative behaviours, try to encourage the right kinds of behaviours that make bullying less likely to occur in the first place". It may be more productive to develop a sense of collective responsibility for the way we treat each other at work. Leaders can be role models and set the right tone, and line managers can encourage their staff to talk openly about how they feel and share good practice.

This may sound like a simple message for what is a complex picture. But there is no quick fix here. Increasing awareness of how we treat each other at work should get more people talking openly about what feels fair, but this is not necessarily an easy thing to achieve in practice. Changes in workplace cultures will not happen overnight, and the Acas paper calls for "an open and informed public debate" on solutions that work and how best to encourage them.

There are stark reminders in our paper about why it is worth making an effort to start this change: from the annual cost to the UK economy (estimated at £17.65 billion in a study back in 2007) to the hugely damaging impact on the wellbeing of many individuals, and on the productivity of organisations. This is National 'Anti' Bullying Week, but let's make sure it's also 'pro' the right values and behaviours.

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