There’s been worrying leap in the number of employment tribunals that involve allegations of bullying: up 44%. A new high.
The analysis, by law firm Fox & Partners, found 835 bullying-related cases between March 2021 and March 2022 (from 581). Meaning a growth in toxic work cultures, the firm has concluded.
It’s too easy to assume there are suddenly more ‘bullies’ in the workplace; that post-pandemic pressures alongside the shift to hybrid forms of working and poor management are the root causes of the trend.
In order for HR and organisational leaders to understand what’s happening and take action, there has to be a more nuanced appreciation of where we are, and how our new workplaces are coping with changes. It’s not as simple as encouraging more staff to be open and speak up, rewarding ‘honesty’.
There is a heightened sensitivity to discrimination, to what now constitutes inappropriate behaviour. There’s a greater sense of being ‘entitled’ to praise and positivity. There is no fixed legal definition of bullying, and there will always be a thin line between assertive management needed to deal with poor performance and an inappropriate and ugly use of power.
What constitutes unacceptable behaviour can be very clear: physical intimidation, threats, sexual harassment. But these are relatively rare. The most common causes of bullying in the minds of employees, highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, are subjective and open to interpretation. These include ‘subtle undermining behaviour” (which could just be seen as oversensitivity); ‘excessive and unjustified criticism’ (which might also be an inability to accept or admit poor performance); and ‘inappropriate use of fair procedures’.
At the same time, employees know they are going to have a receptive audience via their networks and social media. So we have a situation where one thoughtless comment, a well-intentioned but poorly worded joke, can quickly turn into an issue, snowball into outrage — and be used as grounds for legal action.
The hybrid workplace certainly hasn’t helped. More reliance on remote, digital communications has meant more potential for miscommunications and new types of bullying (cases have been reported of staff leaving colleagues out of remote meetings; using messaging apps to make critical remarks during presentations etc). Hybrid has also meant a loosening in relationships and fewer opportunities for managers to build clarity and confidence.
In general, we have the beginnings of a work culture where employees — whatever level they’re working at — are frozen by the need to be faultlessly ‘correct’ in everything they say and do. That isn’t healthy, and doesn’t mean a better or more positive working environment. Just one that is more closed and inflexible. The free flow of relationships and communications feels blocked by both the overt and implicit monitoring going on, becoming stilted and limited to bare essentials.
The more important question is why so many more ‘bullying’ cases are reaching the tribunal stage. Rather than a crackdown on bullying and tougher policies, a new balance is needed between rights and responsibilities. Managers have to make the tough decisions. Introducing change can be necessary and it is managers who are in the front line when it comes to pushing through sometimes difficult realities. There can be very reasonable explanations for why managers make extra demands. None of these things mean a working culture is toxic. Grievances and conflict aren’t unhealthy in themselves – they’re often the natural result of bringing diverse groups of people together into teams, and also a signal that people care about their contribution and their role at work.
Niggling concerns and clashes between managers and line reports only become a real problem when there’s no conversation. There is a need to equip line managers in particular — but also staff in general — with the skills to deal with difficult conversations. Making sure people have the self-awareness and confidence to take part in sensitive and awkward conversations without becoming bullish, defensive or skirting around the core issues. It’s what we call ‘Conversational Integrity’, the package of skills that leads to confidence and ability, including ‘situational awareness’, the essential practice of ‘curiosity’, ‘reflective listening’, ‘empathy’, and ‘self awareness’ – so not just listening outwardly but inwardly, how your own ‘inner state’ is impacting on the flow of the conversation.
The best employers will see an opportunity in a genuine and informal transparency over more formal rules and processes. They will benefit from a confident culture based on trust; from a workplace that allows employees to be themselves, accepts difference and new perspectives — and deals with grievances and conflict in an open and mature way.