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Hands on Bullying

The photos of Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson have caused something of a stir, unsurprisingly. Seeing a person put his hands around another’s throat is frightening; who knows what will happen next? But one of the things that horrified me was that while someone was ready to take a picture, nobody went to her rescue. Mr Saatchi explained it as playful tiff, but the action itself was very threatening and it didn't look as though Ms Lawson considered it to be playful.

Getting the balance right can be difficult. We do sometimes play rough and tumble games both in childhood and in adulthood. I can remember hanging upside down on a rotating playground piece of equipment at the age of eight or nine - we called them witches’ hats. My parents (and everyone else’s) would have had kittens if they had known. But we all did it, entirely casually and nobody ever seemed to break an arm, leg or neck. In adulthood we often play challenging games – football, rugby, paintball.

We’re not afraid of a bit of pushing and shoving, but there is a line, sometimes a fine one, where the playfulness becomes unacceptable. Even if Mr Saatchi didn’t intend to hurt or scare his wife, such behaviour is unacceptable.

What can employers learn from this episode?

Not a lot of people know this but – adults are just grown up children! Yup, that’s right. And funnily enough there are quite a few similarities between the two groups. One very noticeable link is a tendency to play practical jokes or engage in workplace banter – sometimes fairly industrial or risqué - and not necessarily have an appreciation that one’s person’s joke is another’s bullying or harassment. It is particularly difficult to manage bullying for a variety of reasons. For a start, there’s no legal definition of bullying. It is akin to harassment, but the harassment sits squarely in the discrimination legislation and relates to protected characteristics like age or race, so you might say that bullying is unwanted language or behaviour which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an environment which is upsetting, intimidating, hostile or offensive, but not for a reason related to a protected characteristic.

Bullying at work can take many forms. For example, ignoring or excluding someone, spreading gossip or malicious rumours, humiliating or searing at someone in public, giving someone unachievable or meaningless tasks.

Genuine bullying behaviour is horrible, though I’m afraid I also come across a very large number of cases where employees who are not performing or are engaging in misconduct squawk “bullying!” as a retaliatory or delaying response.

As an employer you need to take such steps as you can to root out bullying at work. The start is to set standards of acceptable language and behaviour in a policy. Bring employees in the process of agreeing this, because they often think that dignity at work polices are just a joy-killers dreamed up by management or politically correct HR. They need to be engaged in the process and see that there’s a real business need. Include the following points in your policy.

  • Provide examples of inappropriate behaviour.
  • Say that bullying is a disciplinary offence.
  • Give guidance as to what an employee should do in the event that he e feels he is being bullied.
  • Set out the responsibilities of managers and employees.
  • Provide counselling and support.

Make sure the policy is communicated. It’s helpful to have training because employees, including managers, often just don’t realise how easy it is to cross the line, often unintentionally. Let people know that if we become aware of a situation where there is bullying we are duty bound to investigate, even if there is no formal complaint.

Ensure that managers monitor and enforce the policy and take disciplinary action where appropriate.

Set a good example yourself. I have lost count of the number of managers who lean forward confidentially and saw “I probably shouldn’t be saying this but …..” Wake up and smell the coffee! If you know you shouldn’t be saying it, DON’T!

If you need help sorting out workplace bullies (as well as those who cry “wolf”),get in touch.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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