Leadership   //   October 24, 2022

With reports of workplace bullying on the rise, bosses fight back

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and with reports of workplace bullying on the rise, business leaders are reaffirming their commitment to nip the bad behavior in the bud and put bullies in their place.

Research by London-based employment law firm Fox & Partners found that the number of cases heard by the U.K.’s Employment Tribunal containing allegations of bullying jumped 44% over the past year to 835, a record number. Fox & Partners said the bullying claims should serve as a “canary in the mine” moment for companies, noting that the issue unchecked could result in a toxic workplace and a loss of talent.

Some one-third of American adults said they have experienced abusive conduct at work, similar to findings in the U.K., according to a study by the Workplace Bullying Institute.  

Bullying is not only bad for maintaining a professional culture, it can also be detrimental to employees’ health, contributing to increased stress, low self-esteem, and feelings of anxiety and depression, according to the Institute. Meanwhile, the European Heart Journal reported that it can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

“No one wants to tolerate poor work culture and workplace bullying,” said Sathya Smith, founder and CEO of the management enablement platform Piper, who urged bosses to take action. “The example needs to be set from the top, so don’t shy away from the topic. Talking on the subject is the best way to enact change, and it’s great to see Bullying Prevention Month shining a light on the issue,” Smith said. 

Workplace bullying can happen to anyone, at any level, in any profession, as Andi Geloo, a lawyer in Fairfax, Virgina, learned. “I was a victim of workplace bullying, and it’s something that I don’t want others ever to have to experience,” she said. “The more we can help people understand the realities of what is going on, the more we can help bring it to an end.”

Geloo was surprised to find herself the target of two other attorneys who worked in the same courthouse where she practiced law. She jumped through hoops to get to the bottom of who was behind the cyberbullying aimed at her and filed a defamation lawsuit. After she did, the perpetrators offered money to make the situation go away. Geloo refused the money, just wanting an apology, which she never received.

Geloo’s case set her on a mission to change things, which led her to get a law passed making it easier for victims of cyberbullying to get information quicker regarding who is behind the anonymous posts and bullying online. She remains determined to help raise awareness regarding workplace bullying and help those victims of it. “Nobody should suffer through workplace bullying,” she said. “Bullies pick on people who they feel are weak and will take it. Stand up to them through legal means, and you will see how quickly it ends the bullying.”

“To ensure you're hearing about it, empower your managers with the confidence to identify and raise issues.”
Sathya Smith, founder and CEO of the management enablement platform Piper.

Geloo advised victims to document everything related to the bullying, consult with an attorney, and stay calm and focused. Furthermore, she warned, do not retaliate, which could lead to even more problems. 

While there is no legal definition of workplace bullying, the U.K.’s Advistory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) offers as examples the spreading of malicious rumors about a coworker, repeatedly putting a colleague down in meetings and getting a heavier workload than another staffer. Underlings can also be guilty of bullying, by spreading rumors about the boss, refusing to complete tasks, or otherwise disrespecting a manager or attempting to undermine his or her authority. Bullying, as ACAS pointed out, can happen face-to-face or via social media, email or phone calls. 

What can management do to curb bullying? Piper’s CEO Sathya Smith offers the following best practices: 

Train your managers

Leadership and HR focus on work culture, but it’s managers who witness the day-to-day, as Smith put it. Managers are immersed in the team, and through weekly one-on-one meetings, they can build rapport with colleagues. Make sure your managers have attended anti-bullying training and regularly check in with managers on employee behavior, as they are most likely to be the first to spot a change in dynamics, Smith advised. “To ensure you’re hearing about it, empower your managers with the confidence to identify and raise issues.”

Educate your employees

On the flip side, though one would hope that no manager would take advantage of his or her authority, it would be foolish to assume that does not happen. As Smith pointed out, Monster found that 51% of workers have been bullied by a boss or manager, compared to 39% by co-workers. “Even though manager training should significantly reduce this statistic, employees still need educating,” Smith said. “Make clear what channels people can confidentially report bullying, be it from a senior team member or another colleague.”

Take immediate action

Even in the best work culture, bullying can happen. “It only takes one person to change the entire vibe of a workplace. It’s up to you to make it abundantly clear that you don’t tolerate such behavior,” Smith said. If an employee raises an issue, address it immediately, she stressed, commenting, “Don’t shy away from confrontation for fear of upsetting the team dynamics further. You have a duty of care to your employee and your wider team. Take action. Gather the facts and speak with both parties. Monitor the situation, and if nothing changes, further action is necessary.”

Jesse Sacks, director of people, talent and operations at Haystack, a Los Angeles-based employment experience platform, advised fellow managers to model and encourage transparent employee feedback and communication, and to implement proper systems for employees to share their experiences with management freely, particularly as remote and hybrid work arrangements have become the norm.

Sacks believes the recent spike in reports of bullying may, in fact, be connected to the rise in working from home. “Just as we’ve seen an increase in social media trolling and online harassment, workplace bullies may feel they can get away with this type of behavior in the digital workplace,” he explained. 

Ultimately, when it comes to preventing bullying in the workplace, hiring is key, as Sacks sees it. “The employer’s goal should be to hire team members who are kind and respectful to one another, creating an environment that allows people to feel safe to bring their whole selves to work,” he proposed. “Ultimately, no tool or hack can replace good, old-fashioned commitment and passion to do good work. Skills can be learned; being the right human cannot.”

By the numbers

  • 41% of small companies (10-50 employees) are requiring employees to return to the office compared to 27% of enterprises (10,000+ employees).
    [Source of data: Owl Labs report.]
  • Only 36% of employers have upgraded their video meeting technology since the start of the pandemic.
    [Source of data: Owl Labs report.]

Quote of the week

“While younger generations may face the stereotype of being a ‘digital-only’ group of workers, our research clearly shows that they prioritize the ability to learn from others face to face.”
Stuart Finnie, head of design at Unispace. 

What else we’ve covered

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  • Too many myths are circulating when it comes to Generation Z and the attitude people born in that period have towards the workplace and their careers. Here is a myth buster.
  • The ongoing culture of packing back-to-back meetings into the workday, is causing mass disengagement and inclusivity problems.
  • With millions of job vacancies still open for the 14th straight month, nonprofits are urging more employers to embrace formerly incarcerated people who have rehabilitated. Employers that have call these second-chance hires extremely high performers.
  • For all the talk of improving the balance of experienced female talent in senior positions within companies – the stigma around the topic of menopause has meant that very few employers are even considering how to offer support to women in this stage of their lives and careers.
  • Demand for Santa Claus is surging. Susan Mesco, who operates a Santa school in Denver, has seen around 30 to 50 bookings a day, with her phone off the hook since July.
  • With the mass career reassessment that millions of people have undergone over the past few years, some experts now believe that it’s pointless to embed long-term employee retention strategies.
  • Bilingual employees can earn 5% to 20% more per hour than those who aren’t, however sometimes a skills test is needed to prove the skills. We look at what bilingual employees should expect from their employers.

What we’re reading

  • Due to their strategic distribution, gas stations are being primed as the next most popular third space for working, outside of the office and home environments. [Gensler]
  • A trio of former Uber managers have set up Ambr, an app designed to tackle work-related chronic stress, which could reportedly be costing businesses up to $190 billion. [TechCrunch]