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The fine line between robust leadership and workplace bullying

We take a look at what firms can do to educate their employees to reduce instances of bullying and create a positive, collaborative working environment for all.

When does strong management turn into bullying?

In the lead up to, and since, the publication of the report looking into allegations of workplace bullying by Dominic Raab, there were many discussions in the media about the clash between “old-school”, dominant styles of leadership and a workforce that feels more empowered to speak up when the culture is hostile or demeaning. It also became clear that bullying to one person is robust and firm leadership to another. So how can workplaces manage the vast array of management styles and a vocal workforce that demands to be treated with dignity and respect?

The answer is education.

Education, education, education

The starting point is to have a dignity at work policy that not only defines bullying and harassment, but gives examples to show the difference between everyday management or performance management and where some conduct strays over the line into the unacceptable. Explaining to an individual that their work needs some revision because it is, for example, not practical and needs to include an action list is effective management. Delivering that message by shouting and swearing or criticising in front of others crosses the line.

While there is no legal definition of bullying, there is guidance from ACAS, which describes it as unwanted behaviour from a person that is offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting, or an abuse or misuse of power that undermines or humiliates someone. If the reason for the bullying relates to a protected characteristic such as race, gender or sexual orientation, then the affected individual could bring a claim for harassment under the Equality Act 2010. If it does not relate to a protected characteristic, a claim could be brought for breach of the implied contractual term of mutual trust and confidence.

Make training relevant to each workplace population

The next step is to have different training for the different populations, including the workforce, managers, leadership team and HR, so that messages and examples will be relevant to the audience. For example, management training could include:

  • Reiterating to managers that creating a culture of fear is not conducive to innovative work and stymies a team’s professional development.
  • Encouraging managers to develop a culture where employees are confident to speak up about their concerns, opinions and ideas. This will assist in identifying errors and misconduct, which will not happen if employees are afraid to make mistakes or suggest improvement to working practices.
  • Ensuring managerial expectations are clear and realistic and that feedback is specific and constructive. When an employee has performed well, managers should recognise their achievements. When an employee has not, managers should work with them to understand what went wrong, and offer resources to help their development.
  • Explaining that managers should consider adapting their management style to get the most from each of their direct reports. Intention has very little to do with whether conduct amounts to bullying or not; the focus is on how the treatment is perceived by the recipient. Some employees may perform better with a more robust management approach, while others produce their best work when supported with extra positive affirmation when they are performing well. There is no “one size fits all”.
  • Reemphasising the value of feedback from a manager’s team members, and being open to improving their own skills. Give managers confidence to ask for further training and guidance, and emphasise that this will not be perceived as a weakness.

Tailoring training and education to the audience, and using relevant and topical examples will go a long way towards bringing any policies to life. This education needs to be refreshed regularly so that managers and employees alike will be aware of the expectations upon them, and will be clearer about the line between robust leadership and workplace bullying.


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