When the boss is a bully

Written by: Adam Bernstein
Published on: 14 Nov 2023

shouting

Image © paul_craft / Adobe Stock

The presence of a bullying boss within any organisation can have far-reaching implications. This is because workplace bullying not only impacts the mental well-being and productivity of employees, but can also shape the overall workplace culture.

Although most employers have policies in place to combat and address workplace bullying, the situation can become especially challenging when the perpetrator is a manager.

According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 40% of those who have experienced workplace bullying or harassment attribute the problem to their manager.

Furthermore, a survey of 2,100 UK employees conducted by Visier revealed that 43% of workers have left their job at some point in their career due to issues with their manager, and 53% of those contemplating leaving their current roles are thinking of doing so because of their manager.

People leave managers

Managers who engage in bullying behaviour towards their colleagues create a toxic work environment, which results in high turnover rates, diminished morale and decreased productivity.

Bullying may also lead to employees resigning and filing claims of constructive unfair dismissal or, in cases related to specific legally protected characteristics, discrimination and harassment.

Victims of bullying may be reluctant to voice their concerns – particularly when the perpetrator holds a position of authority over them or is on friendly terms with their superior, who may, in turn, be unwilling or unable to address the issue, or deal with any complaints raised.

Any employer wanting the best out of staff will have a process in place to examine how the workplace culture and its practices contribute to the problem and, more importantly, what they can do to rectify the situation.

Identifying potential bullying behaviour

As to how to identify potentially bullying behaviour, employers should promote the use of grievance procedures. They should also emphasise anti-bullying policies while providing training on the conduct expected for both employees and managers within the workplace.

They can use anonymous employee engagement surveys to establish facts while reducing the fear of retaliation. However, these surveys may only highlight a potential bullying issue without identifying the specific individual(s), due to the nature of the process being anonymous. This can be a challenge for larger organisations to resolve.

At the same time, they can put in place anonymous complaint boxes that allow employees to raise concerns at any time.

Another option is to conduct exit interviews. As employees tend to be more candid when leaving a job, an exit interview may be the perfect place to reveal any bullying issues. Management should ensure interviews are conducted by HR or a different department manager, if the departing individual’s line manager is the suspected perpetrator.

Lastly, they can analyse data on staff retention and absences, comparing rates between teams and managers to identify potential problem areas. If any indicators suggest a problem within a team or with a specific individual, management needs to conduct a thorough investigation to identify who the potential bully is if not already known.

This can be done by encouraging employees to utilise policies to bring concerns to management’s attention, emphasising that issues with management should be reported to an alternative manager, senior leader or the HR team for investigation – they should not be swept under the carpet.

Encourage employees to report

Employees should be encouraged to report bullying, but for this to work, employers need to develop a clear reporting procedure with multiple points of contact. They then need to publicly take a firm line against unacceptable behaviours and consistently follow through on policy promises. This also means addressing favouritism and protecting employees from retaliation for raising concerns.

It follows that while employers might fear bullying reports, they should not shy away from identifying and addressing these issues. Doing so provides an opportunity to rectify the situation rather than risk a loss of confidence in management, increased absenteeism, diminished morale, reduced productivity, employee departures or damage to the employer’s reputation.

The matter is especially acute considering today’s competitive job market, where addressing bullying concerns and fostering a more positive workplace can bring significant benefits, both financially and culturally.

Dealing with bullying by managers

If bullying is found to be an issue, after investigating concerns and identifying the underlying reasons, it is crucial to determine the appropriate actions that can resolve the matter.

When deciding on the next steps, should bullying be alleged, employers need to consider factors such as the seriousness of the offence and the individual facts and circumstances.

The bullying may constitute gross misconduct in some cases, warranting disciplinary action. However, not all incidents may require such harsh measures, as mitigating factors or misunderstandings may be present. In other words, the full facts need to be established before action is taken.

Management training, including how to spot signs of bullying, may help managers improve when it comes to handling staff and their own conduct. But, of course, no one-size-fits-all solution exists; a case-by-case approach is necessary to determine appropriate action. If the outcome does not require the manager’s dismissal, it may be possible to assign the employee to an alternative manager.

Summary

Employers should not ignore signs or indicators of bullying. While addressing them is more than likely to resolve any issues, equally, ignoring them could lead to an employment tribunal claim.