Social partners seek solution to bullying at work

Bullying at work is a serious problem that could be costing UK employers millions of pounds and causing a great deal of misery for employees. In recent months, several social partner organisations have attempted to bring the problem to the fore.

The eradication of bullying at school has long been an important aim, and even though it still occurs, there is a genuine wish to stamp it out. However, relatively few people are aware of the seriousness of bullying within the workplace. Surveys have been highlighting this point for a long time - the table below provides some recent examples - but now at last it seems that the social partners are beginning to realise the hidden costs of bullying, and attempting to wipe it out.

Table 1. Recent surveys on bullying
Research Findings
BBC, 1994 53% of employees felt they had been bullied at work
NASUWT teachers' union 72% of teachers experienced bullying by colleagues, not pupils
Nursing Times, 1995 Reports a new breed of "macho-managers" who under the pressure of restructuring were passing on stress factors to staff
Ronin research services, 1997 50% of respondents had received abusive or critical messages by e-mail
Royal College of Nursing, 1997 Two-thirds of respondents claimed to be the victims of intimidation
Institute of Personnel and Development, 1996 One in eight respondents complained of being bullied at work

Sources: FDA News, June 1997; IPD; The Times, 21 May 1997.

New guidelines and reports

According to a new report (Key facts on harassment at work) issued in May by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), which represents personnel and human resources managers, in the past bullying at work was always regarded as being due to over-zealous management or awkward workers that needed a firm line taken with them. The IPD realises, however, that the hidden costs of bullying may be costing employers millions of pounds. It says that bullying is bad for business because staff become too stressed to do their jobs, and some even cease to turn up for work. The IPD has produced a fact-sheet that is supposed to encourage employers to take a stand against intimidating behaviour in the workplace.

The report argues that employers should be on the look-out for the following:

  • emotional violence;
  • physical violence;
  • coercion for sexual favours;
  • pressure to participate in political or religious groups; and
  • pestering or "stalking"

IPD advises that "any persistent behaviour which a person finds intimidating, upsetting, humiliating or offensive should be investigated."

The Royal College of Nursing (a trade union representing nurses) also recently issued guidelines, after a survey conducted for it found that two out of every three nurses claimed to be the victim of intimidation. More than half said that their manager or supervisor was responsible, while another third blamed colleagues. Other findings from the survey were that;

  • 25% said that they had suffered sexual harassment; and
  • 10% said that they had suffered racism.

However, the survey found that only one in three people complained, because it was either too difficult to collect evidence or they feared retaliation.

A new type of bullying is via the use of the computer, which has become known as "flame mail". A recent survey by Ronin research services found that staff regularly receive abusive messages via the use of internal electronic mail systems. Men were found to be the victims as well as the perpetrators, being five more times likely than women to send this type of mail and twice as likely to receive them. One in 70 people said that they had left their jobs because of these messages. More worrying was the fact that the survey found that the most common response was to reply similarly with another abusive message. A third of the respondents said that they actually stopped communicating with colleagues, which is all the more worrying considering that this mostly concerned middle management.

The whole area of bullying is fraught with difficulties. There are different kinds of bullies and different kinds of bullying. A recent article in the journal of the Association of First Division Civil Servants (FDA), which represents civil service and NHS managers (FDA News, June 1997) sought to highlight the different types of bullying, as follows:

Table 2. Types of bully
Type of bully Characteristics
Pathological They simply get pleasure from hurting people
Situational They threaten and intimidate their staff when under pressure themselves. So-called "cascade bullying"
Role-playing They follow the authoritarian model of management used in their organisation
Punishing They believe that the "stick" is more effective than the "carrot"
Psychopathic Manager A variant of the pathological bully, psychologists say they have a history of school truancy and develop a cold disregard for the feelings of others

Source: FDA News, June 1997

"If you work for an office bully, verbal abuse and humiliation may be the least of your problems. They may set you impossible deadlines and unattainable targets, remove your responsibility, take credit for your work or spread rumours and lies to senior management about you," states the article."Cascade bullying" seems to be the most common form of bullying, especially in areas which have been exposed to the pressures of restructuring. The "downsizing" and "delayering" culture brings with it a feeling of job insecurity which in turn puts much more pressure on managers as they become overworked. They in turn then tend to transfer this pressure onto their staff.

The costs of bullying are extremely difficult to establish. One of the greatest difficulties is that, because there are usually no formal procedures for dealing with bullies, bullying becomes increasingly difficult to identify or report unless it is of a very blatant nature. What procedures there are usually involve employees going to their immediate manager, but this is problematic if it is the manager who is doing the bullying. The FDA article states that as many as 40 million days per year may be lost through absence caused by bullying - at a cost of at least GBP 4 billion.

The IPD believes that companies should aim to develop a culture where everyone knows that bullying is unacceptable, and where people feel confident enough to complain without worrying that they are going to make the situation worse.

The FDA advises that the following check-list should be used:

  • do not explode. The bully will use this against you, but at the same time do not simply accept the situation;
  • keep a record of the incidences;
  • talk to your workplace representative or welfare officer;
  • remember that senior managers may have a different view about the bully;
  • do not resign - the bully has then won; and
  • stand up for yourself and get the bully out of the workplace.


While it is plausible that the social partners are at last attempting to deal with the problems of bullying, is extremely difficult to develop a culture in which bullying is seen as unacceptable while companies continue to use "downsizing" and "delayering" as a method of reducing costs. There needs to be a set of universally accepted criteria which all parties should follow. A recognition by companies is also needed that costs can be avoided by making it clear to all within the organisation that bullying is socially unacceptable. The line between the management of employees and the bullying of employees is a fine one, but nevertheless there is such a line, which should be made clear to all. (MW Gilman, IRRU).

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