November 10, 2008

Management briefing: bullying in the workplace

Workplace bullying is on the rise and the public sector is the worst offender, a report has found.

The Government estimates that bullying costs the UK economy £13.7 billion, with 100 million days in productivity lost every year.

In Bullying at Work: the Experience of Managers, 70 per cent of managers polled by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) said that they had witnessed bullying in the past three years and 42 per cent had been bullied themselves, with unfair treatment, verbal insults, unwanted sexual advances, blocked promotion opportunities and physical intimidation among examples named.

When asked about their experiences, managers said that instances of bullying were not only top down. Some 55 per cent had witnessed bullying among peers, and one in three had seen subordinates bullying their managers.

When bullying did occur, it often went unchecked. Almost half the respondents (47 per cent) said no action was taken by their organisation.

There appear to be multiple reasons for the trend. Root causes named include a lack of management skills, cited by 71 per cent of respondents, 59 per cent said that personality clashes were the problem and 44 per cent blamed authoritarian management styles.

The CMI report compared the results with the same survey conducted three years ago and found that bullying appeared to be on the rise across all organisations. On a 5-point scale, individuals gave their employer a score of 2.37 to show the extent of bullying in their workplace, up from 2.25 in 2005. The public sector received an average 2.60.

Gill Trevelyan, the head of good practice services at Acas, the arbitration service, said that high levels of stress associated with professions such as teaching or healthcare were a big factor.

“One of the main reasons for managers to adopt bullying behaviour is when they are under pressure or stress themselves,” she said. However, the figures could also owe to greater awareness of bullying in the public sector, making employees more likely to report incidents.

“In other workplaces that have a more aggressive culture, such as a financial trading floor, these practices may be seen as normal - although not necessarily right,” Ms Trevelyan said. It pays for organisations to be vigilant. Bullying contributes to ill-health, and organisations that tolerate it can be held to account under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

A ruling by the law lords in 2006 made it clear that the principle of vicarious liability under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 applies in the workplace, so employers may be held liable even if they have not acted negligently or were unaware of the problem.

The best course of action is to have clear policies to define what constitutes bullying and to make employees aware of procedures, Ms Trevelyan said. Effective management is crucial. “Managers who take a more consultative, consensual approach rather than ‘command and control' are less likely to be seen as bullies,” she said.


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