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How can we stop or reduce workplace bullying?

Bullying in the workplace in Ireland is still taking up a huge amount of time and effort for HR people, managers, employees involved and others around them. It’s a really tricky issue to deal with sensitively, with fairness, it’s fraught with tension and accusations, and it invariably ends with a poor outcome for both the employees involved and the employer.

The accepted definition in the codes of practice is: “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual’s right to dignity at work”.

There is no statutory legislation in Ireland on this – only Codes of Practice, and these fall under different areas of employment and health and safety legislation.
Did you know that women are twice as likely to be bullied? In an ESRI survey in 20078 7.9% of employees reported bullying cases – there would have been a significant amount more that were not officially reported as bullying – by it’s very nature – tends to be discreet.

In June 2012, a landmark case also introduced a new type of bullying ‘corporate bullying’ as seen in the Kelly v Bon Secours case (IEHC21). This case showed that a management team could perceive and treat an employee differently and consequently single out the individual. In this case, the managers viewed the individual as a ‘troublemaker’ and the end result was damages of €60,000 against the employer where the individual had been bullied – not only by the manager – but by the management team as a whole.
However, we are also seeing cases where it has been confirmed that managers have to be able to manage employees reasonably, and this will include acting on poor performance, poor or bad behaviour, attendance etc.

With pressures on the public and private sector during a recession, sometimes this pressure can result in excessive demands on employees which can result in perceived or actually bullying at all levels.

So what can we do to help reduce the risk and/or eliminate potential bullying?

  1. Policy – it is essential that every organisation – whatever size – has a bullying policy in place. You can call it what you like – bullying/dignity at work – but without this in place an employer will have an impossible situation to deal with.
  2. Educate – make sure your managers and employees understand the policy and that your company is absolutely committed to dealing with issues immediately
  3. Early management – most issues can be resolved quickly if you talk immediately – don’t wait!
  4. Clarity – if an employee even mentions that they might be bullied, clarify, and talk – the worst cases often result when employees are ignored, or the reaction from their manager is delayed
  5. Be sensitive to both parties – as an employer you have a duty of care so don’t risk taking sides until a full investigation is completed
  6. Make sure you are showing impartiality – bring in expert help from another department or from an outside consultancy – impartiality is key
  7. After the decision is taken, work on making sure that there will be no repercussions or further difficulties – put a plan in place to check regularly that the issue is resolved