Episode 3

Defence Against Workplace Bullying

Barely a week goes by without the mention of allegations of workplace bullying. From squabbling Duchesses at Kensington Palace to the very public fallouts between senior Government Ministers and their officials, there seems to be an epidemic of workplace bullying.

As well as the terrible cost to an individual’s mental health, the CIPD estimates that the cost to the economy is some £18 BN in absenteeism, lost productivity and payouts to victims. But defining bullying isn’t easy. Unlike Harrassment, there isn’t a legal definition of bullying under the Equality Act 2010 presenting a minefield for HR professionals to navigate.

About my guest

Dr Samuel Farley a Lecturer in Organisational Psychology at the University of Leeds Business School with a particular focus on the Dark Side of workplace behaviour, including bullying, cyberbullying and incivility. Within this field, his interests include the measurement of bullying, perpetrators of bullying and how targets attribute blame for their experiences of harassment. Sam’s works has published in Medical Education, the International Journal of Human Resource Management and Work & Stress. He has written for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Cybersmile and Safety Management Magazine.


[Chris]: Seemingly barely a week goes by without the mention of allegations of workplace bullying. From squabbling duchesses and royal intrigue at Kensington Palace to the very public fall-outs between senior government ministers and their officials at the Home Office, there seems to be an epidemic of workplace bullying. As well as the terrible cost of individual’s mental health, the CIPD estimates that the cost of the economy is some 18 billion pounds in absenteeism, lost productivity, and pay out to victims.
But defining bullying isn’t easy. Unlike harassment, there isn’t a legal definition of bullying under the Equality Act 2010, presenting a bit of a minefield for HR professionals to navigate. But are we really experiencing an epidemic of workplace bullying? Has what used to be described as high standards direct and forthright behaviour now been reclassified as bullying? Do today’s employees lack backbone and resilience and seek to cover up their own incompetence by waiving the bullying card whenever they can? Joining me to discuss is this week’s Oven-Ready HR guests, Dr. Sam Farley, a lecture in Organisational Psychology at The University of Leeds Business School with a particular focus on the dark side of workplace behaviour, including bullying, cyber bullying, and incivility.
Within this field, his interests include the measurement of bullying, perpetrators of bullying, and how targets attribute blame for their experiences of harassment. Dr. Sam’s work has been published in medical education, the International Journal of Human Resource Management and Work and Stress. He’s also written for the Guardian the Sunday Times, Cybersmile and Safety Management Magazine. Welcome to Oven-Ready, Dr. Sam. Your focus on the dark side of workplace behaviour sort of reminded me a bit that the sort of the Harry Potter Universe and the defence against the dark arts lessons. I’m talking to a Hogworts master here.
[Sam]: Well, thank you. Thank you. Yeah, hopefully not Professor Snape. I hope to come out on the good side of that comparison.
[Chris]: Now, workplace bullying, very hot topic at the moment. Are there more workplace bullies or where are we better at calling it out, do you think, when we see poor behaviour?
[Sam]: I don’t know that there’s necessarily more. To give you I suppose, a brief history, the field of workplace bullying really came into being in the 1990s when a British woman called Andrea Adams does a series of radio programmes about it. Then in terms stimulated research on the topic. So, it became very big in the nineties, and he did much more research in the 2000s and 2010s. So, we know lots about it.
But in those years, it has been very difficult to get a sense of whether it’s increasing or decreasing because it’s kind of been studied across the world in many different countries. and I think it probably fluctuates alongside workplace conditions. So, it might be, for example, when the financial crash happened and there was a lot of insecurity and change, we experienced a lot more bullying. That might’ve been followed by a period of decline with greater growth. We might be now going through another period of transition with the Coronavirus pandemic, where again, there’s much more organisational change. Everyone’s working from home, and that change can create conditions in which bullying thrives. So, we might be at the moment experiencing a bit more, but it’s very difficult to tell.
[Chris]: Okay, but your work particularly focussed on workplace, cyber bullying, didn’t it? Can you explain what you researched and what this research revealed?
[Sam]: Yes. So, I did mine PhD banker. I started in 2012, and sometimes in academia is the case, we’re a bit behind the workplace with these things. So, at that time we didn’t really know much about cyber bullying at all. The purpose of my PhD really was to develop a way of measuring cyber bullying in the workplace, and to look at how it compares to traditional bullying that you might experience face to face. What we found in one of the studies that I conducted with my supervisors was that cyber bullying seemed to have a more detrimental impact on job satisfaction than traditional bullying. We put this down to some of the unique features of cyber bullying.
So, the fact that it can kind of invade the walls of a home, you can experience it when you’re out shopping or out and about, so it has a bit of a greater viral reach we would say.
[Chris]: Okay. Okay. This type of bullying. So, what do you mean by cyber bullying? Is this someone sending me a bit of an aggressive email or WhatsApp or texts or what is it?
[Sam]: Yeah, so a good question. So bullying, I suppose, is traditionally defined using two main criteria. Firstly, for bullying to have occurred, it needs to be experienced repeatedly and over time. Some people say that for something to constitute bullying, it needs to have gone on for at least six months. Now, that’s not something I would necessarily agree with, but you can get a sense from that. It needs to be repeated. You can’t call a one-off bullying. So, it needs to be repeated. The second main criterion is that there needs to kind of be some kind of power disparity between the perpetrator and the victim.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Sam]: So, if you’ve got two colleagues on the same level who don’t like each other and they’re sending each other nasty emails. We wouldn’t really call that bullying because there’s no apparent power disparity there it’s just a kind of conflict. But when you get a differential such as maybe a boss is doing it to their subordinate, then you have a bit of a powered disparity at play. That’s when something can become workplace bullying.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Sam]: Cyber bullying involves those two criteria, but with the obvious distinction that’s it needs to be, and that too through technology rather than face to face.
[Chris]: Okay, and other business sectors or organisations that seem to have a greater propensity for workplace bullying. I mean, you mentioned the financial crash and those investment banks or financial institutions, which we’re going through a great period of change at the time. Other people recently have referenced the NHS as an organisation under a great deal of stress and strain. And then other people have also said well, actually there’s stuff going on in the Royal Palace and stuff going on in government departments. Is there a propensity for certain sectors or organisations, do you think?
[Sam]: Yes, I think so, and it is hard to tell this because there are some organisations and some sectors where it’s very hard to go in and study workplace bullying. As you can imagine, they might not want to shine the light on that. But generally the academic findings suggest that bullying is more likely to occur in larger organisations and also in public sector organisations.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Sam]: So, like you mentioned that the NHS has become a bit of a hotbed for workplace bullying. I suppose the reason why those types of organisations see maybe more bullying is because often there might be greater demand on the system. Certainly, that’s been the case in the NHS. There was also more organisational change in those types of organisations, and again, that’s that’s been linked as a cause of workplace bullying. So, that’s what we know so far released on sectors. But as I say, it’s hard to tell because certain sectors such as financial services, for instance, there’s very little available research on it.
[Chris]: Do you think, I mean, is bullying sometimes used as a detriment against perhaps a supervisor or a manager who has high standards and therefore drives their team to achieve greater things?
[Sam]: Yes. That’s a really good point because I suppose there’s been a big debate in academia, but about whether this issue of intent to harm should be included as a criteria through which you should define bullying.
[Chris]: Okay.
[Sam]: Some people say that in order for bullying to occur, the person who’s done, needs to have intended harm. That’s been rejected by a lot of people who actually say, “Well you know, the supervisor might not have intended to harm their subordinates, but through their kind of pursuit of organisational goals, they have maybe unintentionally bullied bullied that target.” I’m not sure if you’ve seen the film Whiplash.
[Chris]: Yes.
[Sam]: Which is a film about a drummer who experiences a huge amount of bullying from his kind of mentor, but this over time makes him a much better drummer. We would generally call that bullying, although the intent to harm element is maybe absent from that.
[Chris]: I mean, that’s an interesting point because obviously to achieve success in any field—business, sports, politics, the arts—high achievers are sort of considered those, but they’ve rather an iron will and unwavering belief in their own abilities. The saying that “you can’t make an omelette breaking the eggs.” Now, if you look at women’s gymnastics in the UK, I mean, last year there was a lot of coverage about those female gymnast felt very much bullied by the coaches. and obviously the same, I think, has happened in America, but with far, far worse consequences. As you say, the whiplash reference, I mean, do coaches have to bully people to get the best out of them?
[Sam]: Yes. Well, maybe yes isn’t the answer to that. But no, they absolutely don’t have to do that at all. and over time, I think it’s going to be maybe to the detriment of both the organisation and the individuals who are on the end of that treatments. What we find quite often is that the line between what you might call something like performance management and bullying can often become quite blurred. Certainly, you can see how people might interpret bullying when someone doesn’t have that intention in mind because it can be really, really difficult to be on the end of a very demanding supervisors management for a very long period. I think that it can become very, very stressful.
One of the studies that’s been done recently actually looked at how people attribute their boss’s intentions in relation to bullying behaviours. And they found that when the target believed that the supervisor intended to harm them, the response was one of anger, and as a result of that anger, the person who’d experienced it engaged in more deviant behaviours towards the organisation and that manager, and also engaged in fewer organisational citizenship behaviours. But when they attributed blame for the negative treatment they received to the supervisor, wanting them to make them better, they experienced guilt. That guilt in term stimulated fewer deviant behaviours and more citizenship behaviours.
So, it suggests that people interpret these behaviours differently depending on whether their supervisor intends to harm them or has a kind of management to them. But that’s not to say that they can’t be very harmful, I suppose.
[Chris]: No. Absolutely. So, but this definition of intent is really interesting, isn’t it? So, you’re saying that if the person who was being bullied thinks that actually their supervisor or their manager is literally out to get them and intends them harm, then actually their behaviour within the workplace is really, really affected in all sorts of different ways. As you say that they become less of an organisational citizen. They become more deviant or whatever in their own behaviour. I guess that’s almost like a self fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it? So, therefore it reinforces the bullying in a way. Does it? Was that no correlation between the two?
[Sam]: Well, it’s not something there’s been a lot of research about, but I suppose just as humans and in my own experience, we are properly more willing to forgive those who’ve done something to us that we feel is accidental, or maybe it was in the person’s nature to do that. But when we’re on the end of something that’s very malicious and feels like it’s getting us as people, it can be really much, much harder to deal with that because you can’t explain it away as easily, and so you think, well, maybe this person might be getting at me because I’m a bad person, or you may be attributed to their own personality, and I think you’re right. I think that it can end up with much worse consequences than if it was done accidentally.
[Chris]: Looking at the genders, is there a greater propensity for either men or women to be bullies or is that split quite even? I only asked that because actually I used to have a talent business and most of my candidates were female and probably at least three or four or five times a month, someone would say to me, “I don’t want to work for a woman.” I never got that with, “I don’t want to work for a man.” That’s just an anecdotally, I don’t know what the reasons why, and I didn’t delve into it that deeply, but is there a difference between the two? Do men bully in a different way, or do women bullying a different way? I don’t know.
[Sam]: It’s a good question. The research on this isn’t very clear. It’s the case that men tend to be more aggressive than women, certainly.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Sam]: And so if men do engage in bullying, it’s probably more of a more direct nature than women, but there is very mixed research on the levels of bullying among men and women. The effect sizes which is the kind of determine the relationship between gender and bullying, but they’re quite weak. So, it’s not a very good explanatory variable in terms of. Why bullying occurs. but I think in terms of the level of aggressiveness it’s probably the case that men are more aggressive. They engage in more direct, hostile behaviours, and it’s possible that women engage in more indirect forms of bullying, but that isn’t a very conclusive research findings.
[Chris]: Okay. No, that’s absolutely fine. What are the most typical forms of workplace bullying that you see?
[Sam]: The typical ones are I suppose, the lower level ones. So, things like workplace criticism is a very common form of bullying and giving someone an excessive workload is another, a very common form of bullying. Whereas things like name-calling are quite rare. Gossip is relatively rare as well. So, as you might expect, some of the more kind of subtle forms of bullying are the ones that occur most often. These are the ones that can maybe be explained the way a bit more easily than something very hostile, for example.
[Chris]: No. Absolutely, and I guess in a way with people working from home, if they haven’t been included on an email or they haven’t been included on a video call and those sorts of things, or they get an email that’s all in capital letters or uppercase. That sort of looks shouty and aggressive and being left off of things. You could begin to think actually, I’m being bullied, or I’m not being included, or I’m being excluded as it were. Do you see that as something as perhaps happened a bit over the last 12 months or so?
[Sam]: I suspect to it has, yeah. The research on ostracism is quite interesting because it suggests that actually ostracism can be much worse than these kind of very hostile, direct apps because you’re being ignored. You’re not getting any attention at all, and so that can be really, really difficult for people to take. I think it’s unfortunate as well because that’s maybe one of the things that’s particularly easy to do, isn’t it? Because it might not be intentional. It might be very ambiguous thing that you just kind of maybe one day you forget to include someone on an email.
[Chris]: It’s easy to do, right?
[Sam]: But it can have disastrous consequences. Yeah.
[Chris]: Absolutely. Okay, and tending to the person that’s being bullied now. What do you see as sort of the physical and mental effects of those individuals who’ve been through something as hostile as workplace bullying? What do you see?
[Sam]: Well, bullying is one of those things that’s really is universally negative to every single kind of health and work outcome you can think of.
[Chris]: Yeah.
[Sam]: People who are bullied more likely to go off sick, as you might expect. Bullying has been related to problems with sleep and insomnia. It’s been associated with post-traumatic stress. Studies in Scandinavia suggests that those who are bullied are more likely to sign up to get disability benefits or out of work benefits after their experience.
So, it has a very negative impact upon people. and I think the link to post-traumatic stress kind of confirms that it can be really, really serious. But that’s not to say that some people kind of will recover and be stronger as well as a result of their experience. So, although it is a horrible thing to go through for lots of people there are some people who may come out stronger as a result of going through something like that.
[Chris]: Absolutely. I guess obviously what a lot of people will do, if they can, is they would change organisation to escape the perpetrator, who’s bullying them. As now, people say that the anecdote is you don’t leave an organisation, you leave the manager because your relationship with your supervisor is poor. I wonder how many organisations actually measure rarely why the real reasons of why someone has decided to leave? Because I I’d imagine there’s a fair amount of talent that walks out the door and people aren’t really aware of the genuine reason.
[Sam]: Well, you’re right. Actually, that brings to mind a few points really. The first one being that a lot of the research that we have on bullying is done on within certain workplaces, so you get the view of those who are in that workplace, but are on the end of treatment at the moment. But those who were kind of sped up and who have left as a result of bullying, they’re kind of voiceless because they don’t get the chance to participate in the research.
[Chris]: No.
[Sam]: But the other thing on that was just to say that charging your point about people leaving. I mean, there was a study a few years ago now that looked that looked at bullying victims and these bullying victims were asked, “What would your advice be to someone who is on the end bullying at the moment?” The response was a very depressing one, which was, “Just leave the organisation. Don’t go through it.”
[Chris]: Get out.
[Sam]: Yeah.
[Chris]: That is quite depressing.
[Sam]: It’s very depressing, and it’s hard, I think, for people to go through all of the rigmarole that comes with reporting an incident of bullying to an organisation that’s an incredibly stressful to go through.
[Chris]: Then again, perhaps some of these high profile cases and things that are going on Palaces and God knows where maybe they will actually shine a light on it, and people will say, “You know what? I am being bullied, and I am going to raise a grievance, and I do hope that my employer takes this seriously.” Maybe it will actually encourage people to change their behaviour, or at least those victims who actually report what’s happening to them because it does seem to be, as you say, that people just seem to leave.
[Sam]: I think one of the things that I’m working on at the moment is the idea of low level conflict resolution. So, it’s the idea that in order to prevent bullying occurring, you need to nip these small conflicts in the bud so that they don’t escalate into long-term conflicts that eventually become bullying, experiences people. For these kinds of small conflict resolution conversations to occur, someone needs to say at some point, “I’m not happy with the treatment I’m receiving,” to initiate that conversation. Perhaps, as you say, as a result of these stories that we’ve seen in the press, it might be the case that people are more willing to raise these raise their unhappiness at an earlier time point when something can be done about the issue rather than leaving it for a longer time and allowing bullying to occur.
[Chris]: Do you think that bullies can be rehabilitated?
[Sam]: Well, I suppose.
[Chris]: Do you think if that behaviour is pointed out and that actually they see the effect that they are having on those around them and the negative effect that they’re having, do you think that would perhaps would mitigate some of this a little bit?
[Sam]: I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that most people, if they were told about the impact that they were having on people, that they wouldn’t want that negative treatment to continue over time. I think what we see with the bullying research is it’s not really people’s personalities that lead them to engage in bullying, but rather it’s the conditions of the organisation that time that kind of permit people to.
[Chris]: And the stress that they are under.
[Sam]: Exactly. We talked a bit about the NHS and the NHS is, is somewhere where bullying occurs more commonly. But the NHS is also a very caregiving organisation, so the two don’t seem very compatible.
[Chris]: No.
[Sam]: It’s only when you look deep and you see that the demands that people are under in that organisation and that the levels of change and role conflict and ambiguity, and it’s actually those conditions that create an atmosphere where bullying can occur. So, to some extent, the responsibility for bullying has to be shared both by the perpetrator and the organisation as well because there must be some responsibility on the part of organisations to create healthy working conditions where bullying cannot thrive.
[Chris]: No. I mean, there’s a real lesson there that obviously organisations must create positive working cultures and working environments. As you say, if these conflicts were dealt with really early on, they probably wouldn’t escalate into some of these stories that you see where people are literally off sick and are very, very unwell mentally and physically because of just going to work. I mean, it does seem an awful shame, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s a terrible state of affairs when it gets that bad.
[Sam]: Absolutely, and it’s a terrible cost as well to society, the organisation, the person that has gone through it. I mean, you look at all the legal fees and the benefit payments out of working and there’s been a lot of work on how much bullying costs and it runs into the billions of pounds a year, which is really money that organisations and societies is wasting.
[Chris]: No, absolutely. I mean, do you think there ought to be an amendment to the Equality Act 2010 to perhaps include a definition of bullying as there is with harassment?
[Sam]: I think it might send the message formally to organisations that this type of behaviour is not going to be something that’s that’s tolerated. So, it might make some organisations that wouldn’t otherwise look to deal with bullying set up and take notice. So, that might be a factor. Does some good, but then there does exist also a duty of care that all organisations have for their employees.
[Chris]: Sure.
[Sam]: And if they didn’t adhere to that, then organisations can often end up paying out a great sum of money to people who are bullying victims. So, yeah, it’s a good question, and I don’t know how effective it would be.
[Chris]: Who knows? A very interesting subject, Dr. Sam. I mean, it’s obviously a massive hot topic at the moment, particularly in the UK. Thank you very much. Indeed.
[Sam]: Oh, it’s a pleasure.

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