Identifying and eradicating bullying

Managing conflicts and bullying in the workplace is a hot topic. Correct and diplomatic management of difficult situations is imperative in ensuring that staff are not subjected to bullying from colleagues or associates.

At a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) seminar entitled ‘Managing Conflict and Bullying at Work’, delegates heard from several speakers, including head of diversity and inclusion at the Royal Mail Group (RMG) David Vaughan. When Vaughan joined RMG’s diversity team in 2003 the organisation had a deeply unpleasant culture of bullying and harassment. Thirteen per cent of all its employees had been bullied or harassed in the previous 12 months, with 18 per cent of all female employees being bullied or harassed in that period.

RMG tackled the issue within a context of dignity and respect at work by adopting the following approach:#making it easy for people to complain;#supporting them when they do complain and afterwards;#investigating complaints thoroughly and within a set timeframe;#dealing with respondents appropriately; and#taking significant steps to change the culture of harassment in the organisation.

Supported by their board and trade unions, RMG’s culture change programme looks impressive. However, you have to wonder how it got that bad. Why do people bully in the first place?According to Vaughan, although it is often the case that women at work are the victims, bullying is not an issue of gender, but one of power.

Another speaker, occupational psychologist Dr Noreen Tehrani, gave some valuable insights into the differences between bullying behaviour and strong management:#Step one: a performance issue is identified. In this instance strong management look at all the potential reasons for the deficit. In a case of bullying, no attempt would be made to identify the nature or cause of the poor performance.

#Step two: the views of the team/individual are sought to identify causes. A strong manager would include the team or individual in looking at ways to solve the problem. In the instance of bullying there is no discussion of the cause of the poor performance.

#Step three: new standards of performance are agreed. In a case of strong management, standards of performance and behaviours are set and agreed for the team and manager. If it was bullying, new standards would be imposed without discussion of what might be appropriate.

#Step four: failures to achieve the standards are dealt with as performance improvement issues. Strong management would provide support for individuals who are struggling. Where there is an unwillingness to comply, action is taken. In instances of bullying, ridicule, criticism, shouting, withholding benefits, demotion, teasing and sarcasm are used to deal with failure.

#Step five: recognition for contribution is given by strong management. If there is no monitoring, and a resultant lack of recognition of efforts or arbitrary rewards, this is bullying. Managers (and partners) have seniority in an organisation and therefore have power by virtue of the positions they hold. This power can be used constructively to resolve a performance problem. Strong managers will engage and consult with individuals in a respectful way, adopting a joint problem-solving approach rather than an accusatory blaming style. It is almost as if they set aside or share their power and their behaviour is assertive without being aggressive. It takes confidence, humility, sensitivity and self-awareness to handle poor performance in a constructive manner. However, done well people usually remain engaged and positive rather than disengaged and upset.