Workplace bullying: believing the bullied?

The current context of workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is an issue which is becoming better known and understood, but it seems that every news report on this says it is on the rise. This suggests that while we are becoming increasingly aware of this as an issue, we have not yet embedded the techniques that will address this adequately.

A report from ACAS this week suggests that many inexperienced managers do not know how to deal with workplace bullying and do so incorrectly. This is a major barrier in organisations addressing this issue among employees. Given the cost of litigation in this area, avoiding the issue could be expensive, but it seems to me that our duty to address this issue goes beyond the financial.

The effects of workplace bullying can have long legs, stretching into that person’s personal life and beyond their employment in a particularly toxic environment.  Symptoms can include serious mental health issues such as stress or depression. If we have compassion for our colleagues and work friends, surely we wouldn’t want this to happen under our very noses.

Victims of bullying aren’t always believed

Part of the problem can be believability. I remember a news article a few years ago in which a Personal Assistant claimed to have been bullied by colleagues who ignored and alienated her. After winning a large settlement, I recall friends and colleagues sneering, unwilling to believe that what she had been through could be worth such an amount, and insinuating that she simply “didn’t have what it takes” to work at such a high level.

Those who stand up against the bullying of others can also find themselves in the firing line, and the Equality Act (2010) includes direct discrimination by association. This includes friends, family and colleagues, and hence anyone who might defend and support the bullied.

Keep an open mind

A former colleague in an advisory role once commented to me about the diverse range of disclosure from clients. She explained that on occasion she had felt they could not possibly be telling the truth; that surely that individual must have simply misunderstood or be exaggerating. Later, it so happened that in one of these cases, she was presented with firm evidence that the workplace bullying the person had described had in fact been true. This was a lesson in firstly keeping an open mind, but also a reminder that unless we have been through every moment with someone else, they will always know more about what happened than we ever could.

If we act as advisers, coaches or managers, we may have the tools and skills to help a person deal with a situation in their lives, but they will always be an expert in their own life, and no-one has more information about that than they do. In relation to bullying, it is the perception of the person who has been bullied that is most important. If a person’s self-esteem seems to be reducing and they appear stressed, perhaps there is a reason for this. Unless we have hard evidence to contradict their account, who are we to judge?

Julie Freeborn is an Occupational Psychologist with experience of working with organisations and individuals around the globe to effectively meet their unique challenges.

If you’re experiencing issues with bullying within your organisation and would like to find out more about how we can help, please visit our managing bullying at work.  We’d be happy to have an informal, no obligation chat to discuss your particular circumstances.

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