But how do I know if this is really workplace bullying?


So you were asked to investigate an allegation of workplace bullying. You’ve interviewed the parties concerned and spoken to a reluctant witness. But how do you decide whether or not – on the balance of probability – that the allegation amounts to bullying?

Making a decision can be difficult. Bullies are often clever manipulative individuals. They can appear charming and plausible; and they may also display a great deal of self-belief in their own qualities and importance. Also, when called to account they can counter-attack with distorted facts or allegations of their own. On the other hand, an individual given a perhaps unwanted but reasonable management instruction, can sometimes mistake this for bullying behaviour. So care needs to be taken in reaching conclusions.

Looking for the tell-tale signs of possible bullying is perhaps the best place to start. So for example, is there evidence to suggest that the alleged bully treated the affected individual any differently than others? For example, was he/she:

  • Criticised more than others?
  • Subjected to nit-picking or repeated fault finding?
  • Scrutinised more than others?
  • Ignored or marginalised?
  • Made a scapegoat for problems or shortcomings?

These are all indicators of possible bullying behaviour, but some bullies go further. So is there any evidence of abusive or derogatory behaviour? Was the individual:

  • Put-down, patronised or humiliated in front of others?
  • Subject to shouting, name-calling and/or intimidating language (including in emails/memos etc)?
  • Deliberately misrepresented?
  • Subjected to informal disciplinary or capability actions without good reason?
  • Overruled or undermined, particularly in front of others?

You should also look for signs of bullying in relation to work and performance. Was the individual:

  • Being overloaded with work, or was work taken away.
  • Being asked to perform unrealistic tasks or keep impossible appointments (or not told about appointments or meetings)
  • Having achievements ignored
  • Having reasonable requests constantly refused (eg. to attend training, to take holidays, time off etc.)

Taking account of these questions, any of which could apply, you should have a feel for whether or not bullying has occurred. But a key factor of bullying is that it is persistent. So you must also ask:

  • Do any of these individual signs occur regularly? or
  • If more than one sign, then taken together, do they suggest a long-term pattern of behaviour?

Of course alongside any signs of bullying behaviour, it helps to see how the evidence compares to the organisation’s own policy on bullying, assuming it has one. In particular, you need to decide if the behaviour is consistent with the organisation’s definition of what amounts to workplace bullying.

In the absence of a policy, then the definition offered by Acas will help. Acas describes bullying as:

Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

Now it is also possible that the behaviour is aimed at a protected personal characteristic (race, sex disability, age, belief or religion, gender reassignment, and sexual orientation). If so, such behaviour would amount to harassment; and unlike the bullying described above, this can be a one-off event. Again, you will need to look at your organisation’s definition. Acas describe harassment as:

Unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.

Finally, for the last step before you make your report, you need to consider whether or not the action taken by the alleged bully is reasonable or not in the circumstances; and whether or not the complaint made against the bully is based upon a genuine belief that the individual is being bullied.

This is all about putting the overall picture into context. For example, was the allegation prompted in response to a reasonable request regarding performance? Were actions misunderstood or was information not given clearly? Hopefully the statement from the witness can help you here, but remember, you are trying to find the most plausible explanation.

Indeed, your investigation is not designed to determine innocence or guilt – that would be decided at a disciplinary hearing. But your investigation report will need to conclude either that:

  1. There is evidence to suggest that bullying has occurred.
  2. There was no evidence found of bullying, and so no case to answer
  3. That the evidence suggests problems with behaviour that, while not bullying, will need further consideration (perhaps by informal means).

Once you have submitted your report, then what happens next is a decision for someone else.

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