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What to do if you are accused of bullying

Jackie Cosh

Pointing the finger at an alleged bully

Being a manager often involves talking to staff members about their individual performance or behaviour – but what if an employee feels you have gone too far and accuses you of bullying? Jackie Cosh examines the effects of such an accusation and the best way to deal with it

Picture the scene. You’re a manager in a busy office and one of your staff members is underperforming – you take the person aside, discuss the problem, set some objectives, follow company procedure. As far as you’re concerned, you’ve done the right thing and played it by the book. Then you get a call from HR – the employee didn’t like your attitude and found you overbearing, rude and insensitive. Suddenly you’re being accused of bullying.

Managers have to deal with disputes all the time – it comes with the territory, as does monitoring staff performance. But with growing recognition of bullying in the workplace, increasingly managers are wary of being accused of it.

In October 2009, a survey by Unison and women’s magazine Company found that one in three young women had been bullied at work during the last six months, and two-thirds of them said the problem was ongoing.

The two organisations have launched a Bully Busters campaign (see box p43) to raise awareness of the issue and they’re urging the government to create anti-bullying legislation.

Checklist: Risk assessment

  • Do you have workplace policies and reporting procedures in place relating to workplace bullying?
  • Have you established and promoted expectations for appropriate behaviour?
  • Are employees made aware of workplace bullying procedures, their specific responsibilities and appropriate behaviour in the workplace?
  • Is there a clear process or procedure for dealing with and resolving conflicts?
  • Are your employees aware of the laws on discrimination and harassment?
  • Would you recognise wrongful accusations of bullying?

Reasonable action by an employer or manager in the course of managing the workplace is not bullying.

It is not bullying in the case of a transfer, demotion, discipline or dismissal of an employee in a reasonable manner, or when taking a decision, based on reasonable grounds and facts, not to offer or extend a benefit in connection with an employee’s employment or performance.

Constructive criticism

The latest quarterly employee survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 11% of respondents had noticed an increase in bullying by managers since the downturn started. According to CIPD, managers are shying away from tackling conflict in case they do or say something that might be held against them. It also found that those who experience bullying or harassment are more likely to be depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their work, have a low opinion of their managers and senior managers, and want to leave their current job.

 

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I visited one organisation where the bullying and harassment policy had two boxes, one for managerial behaviours, the other for bullying behaviours. The system may appear simplistic, but it gets people to start distinguishing what is work related and what is personal

Christine Pratt, CEO of the National Bullying Helpline, believes that the threat of being accused is having a big impact on managers’ confidence. “Managers are now afraid of being accused of bullying,” she says. “They would rather look the other way than pull people up. This can cause problems at appraisals as they struggle and worry that their constructive criticism can be misunderstood.

“Often managers are less likely to reprimand staff, particularly if there is a risk of being accused of racial discrimination. If the manager begins to lack confidence and is reluctant to manage staff, we hit a difficult area.”

Being accused of bullying can be very upsetting and represents a slight on a manager’s character as well as a criticism of their interpersonal skills. Binna Kandola, one of the UK’s leading occupational psychologists and co-founder of business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola, says it is easy to underestimate the impact an accusation of bullying can have on a manager.

“Bullying is a strong accusation to make,” says Kandola. “You would need to be a psychopath for it not to affect you emotionally. It is not just the accusation, but the consequence.”

Steve Williams, head of equality at ACAS, believes it can also have a wider impact in the workplace.“When managers are worried about tackling poor performance it can sour the workplace atmosphere,” says Williams. “Those employees who are performing well feel that others are getting away with not performing and it can cause friction between colleagues.”

It isn’t always interpersonal relationships between managers and staff that cause the problem – new systems, such as a change of performance management criteria, can also trigger accusations of bullying. “Sometimes, when a new performance management system is brought in, accusations of bullying will go up as employees view stricter ratings as bullying,”says Kandola.

But there is another way of viewing an accusation of bullying: it can have a significant effect on people’s management style, and often for the better, believes Keith Bedingham, chairman of change management company, Verax International.

“The threat of bullying has made people more aware of their managerial style, how to recognise when it is being misinterpreted and how to adapt it,” he says. For example, the latest research from the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Southern California, has found a link between managers feeling inadequate and then taking it out on staff through bullying.

This is one possible aspect of a manager’s behaviour that can be tackled as a result of an accusation. With more than one-third of American workers reporting that their bosses have sabotaged, yelled at or belittled them, the new study challenges previous assumptions that abusive bosses are solely driven by ambition and the need to hold onto their power.

"By showing when and why power leads to aggression, these findings are highly relevant as abusive supervision is such a pervasive problem in society," said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organisation at USC and lead author of the study.

Charlotte Rayner, professor of human resource management at the University of Portsmouth, also feels that today’s heightened awareness of the risks of bullying is having a positive influence on the atmosphere of many workplaces.

“Accusations of bullying have had real implications for management styles, pushing managers to behave more decently,” she says. “There is less of certain styles of management such as the ‘rough and ready’ type, and people who undermine staff. It makes them think twice about their actions. They start to tread carefully and become frightened of being accused.”

Conflict management

But while the threat of being branded a bully can moderate some managers’ bad behaviour, it leaves many unsure how to tackle a variety of workplace issues.

One of the main difficulties is that it is hard to define what constitutes inappropriate behaviour, meaning managers may be unclear about the boundaries. What one manager thinks of as firmness may be seen by another as aggression, while someone may misconstrue criticism about their presentation, say, as bullying. This uncertainty can be a problem for managers when they are trying to steer the right course, explains Rayner.

“The problem is that the definition of bullying is far vaguer than equal opportunities policies suggest. It’s a matter of perception. Some people may find some behaviours threatening while others may not,” she says.

Bedingham also believes it can be difficult to distinguish between real bullying and a clash of personalities. “We have certainly seen cases where the actions have not been intended as bullying,” he says.

However, experts agree that whether the claim is felt to be fictitious or not, both parties should be allowed to give their side of the story. Retail manager Anna Smith was accused of bullying a team member and felt she was not allowed to put across her side of the story.
“My boss had known me for two years and knew that the accusations were outrageous,” she says. “He dismissed the complaint but I started to think, ‘What if other members of staff believe it?’ I would have liked the opportunity to defend myself properly.”

There is no firm consensus about how often false accusations occur. However, nearly a third (30%) of bullying cases dealt with by the National Bullying Helpline in 2007 were fictitious, and Pratt believes this is down to people being too quick to use the term ‘bully’. Rayner adds: “I have spoken to lots of HR people who include a clause in their policies for vindictive accusations. They do exist but are very few. It is really worrying if this happens.”

More common are the cases that fall under the category of personality clashes or poor management style, factors that can be dealt with through training and mediation. “The vast majority of people I meet who have been accused of bullying are horrified and shocked,” says Rayner.

“It can lead to a real, dramatic loss of confidence. My own feelings are that we should support those accused as well as those who have been bullied. We should not underestimate the shock factor.

“What often happens is that there is an escalation of the conflict. People think they have been undermined, they react against it, then performance drops. That causes the manager to ask what has happened and the staff member feels they have been got at.”

But in Rayner’s experience, training is key in preventing such accusations. “Training can provide managers with phrases to use that show it is not personal but about the task,” she says. “HR, mentors and coaches can be very helpful and managers should rehearse what they are going to say before speaking to a staff member about an issue.”

Setting boundaries

Many companies are also ensuring they have a clear anti-bullying policy – staff are still being reprimanded, but management want to ensure they are not putting themselves in a position where they could be accused of over-stepping the mark. Despite this, the reaction still appears to be reactive rather than proactive.

The Unison and Company research found that 54% of respondents believed bullying had become an acceptable part of their organisation’s culture, and 51% said their organisation had not taken action against it, which increased the scale of the problem.

Williams has encountered a range of anti-bullying policies, some of which were surprisingly straightforward. “I visited one organisation where the bullying and harassment policy had two boxes, one for managerial behaviours, the other for bullying behaviours,” he says.

The system may appear simplistic, but Williams is positive about its application. “This way can work. It gets people to start distinguishing what is work related and what is personal.”

When drawing up policies to deal with bullying, clarity is vital in determining whether someone has actually been bullied. “For many years the rule of thumb has been, what is the reasonable perception of the recipient?” says Williams. “But what is reasonable? Good practice is to have clear policies so that everyone knows what is reasonable behaviour, giving managers something to go by.”

Having policies in place is important, but it is also crucial that managers know how to interpret them. “Training is hugely important and the key to managers being able to determine where the line is,” says Williams. “Staff are more aware of their rights and have a greater understanding of what constitutes bullying and harassment.”

Bullying at work can have a devastating impact on individuals and while nobody would argue that it should not be dealt with, more attention is needed to ensure that managers are not afraid to tackle poor performance or negative attitudes among their workforce for fear of being branded a bully.

Any organisation that takes bullying seriously needs clear policies and training programmes for managers so they know what the rules are and how far they can go when disciplining staff. After all, when you take that colleague aside for a chat about their performance, you don’t want to end up as the one having to explain yourself.

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