How to handle bullying at work

How to handle bullying at work

An unacceptable but common problem

Brewdog has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this week. Over 60 ex-employees signed and published an open letter on Twitter, alleging the company fostered a toxic ‘culture of fear’.

Unfortunately, workplace bullying is all too common. According to Breathe’s Culture Economy 2021 report, 27% of UK employees quit their jobs in the past year due to a toxic workplace culture. That’s an increase of 6% compared to 2019.

This has a huge impact on staff retention, productivity, and profitability. But I’m more interested in the lasting impact bullying has on employees.

My story

I probably come across as quite a confident person. I’m not camera-shy; I put myself out there on social media and have given lectures to university students.

But deep down, like many people, I regularly doubt my ability and feel like an impostor.

I can trace this lack of confidence back to a traumatic period in my career when I was bullied at work.

In my early twenties, I moved from a friendly, nurturing Public Relations agency, to one ruled by fear. I was lured by promotion and a decent pay rise. All the warning signs were there from the very first interview. But I ignored my gut instinct and took the job anyway, thinking I could handle it.

On day one, shortly after I’d introduced myself to my new colleagues, the MD phoned from her holiday home in the South of France. Rather than welcoming me to the fold, she barked a series of instructions down the phone and told me in no uncertain terms to get on with it. Perhaps I should have walked out there and then.

She took every opportunity to undermine me. She would stand behind me while I talked to journalists, interrupting and correcting me. I remember one excruciating meeting when she explained to my client that the reason the latest PR campaign hadn’t gone to plan, was because my client and I didn’t like each other. We were both in the room!

The impact of bullying

My confidence hit rock bottom during those long, agonizing months. The bully was the owner of the agency; and it being a very small company, there was no HR or welfare officer to talk to.

I often cried myself to sleep at night, waking up with a feeling of utter dread. I became ill with IBS, but fear prevented me from taking any time off. With rent and bills to pay, I couldn’t afford to leave without a job to go to and interviewing in such a fragile state wasn’t easy.

For the next few years, I really struggled to express my opinions at work – in a job in which I was paid to be an advisor – for fear of being shouted down.

Pastures new

When I moved from PR to recruitment, I found something I was genuinely good at, and my confidence started to return. Having supportive colleagues certainly helped.

What was startling was how many candidates I met who had had a similar experience: a short period of time on a CV explained away with a ‘personality clash’, but delve a little deeper and it was usually a case of workplace bullying.

Being undermined or belittled at work can have a lasting impact on confidence and mental health. We subconsciously carry around that colleague’s negative narrative, questioning our own judgment and even reframing our successes as luck rather than skill.

You might think that bullies have been on a break during the lockdown, without colleagues physically being in the office. But anecdotal evidence from people in my network would suggest that bullying has been going on by stealth, under the radar. With meetings taking place online, bullies feel less visible and accountable to others who might call them out.

It’s also not as easy for the bullied employee to find support. The result is a feeling of utter isolation.

What can you do about workplace bullying?

Let me start by saying I don’t recommend going public on Twitter. I’m not sure what the 60 ex-employees hope to achieve with their open letter, cathartic as it may be.

All companies have a legal duty to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and other people who might be affected by their business. This includes mental wellbeing and preventing harassment.

* The first step is to make notes. Write down every episode or confrontation you can remember, with dates. Keep evidence of emails.

* See if you can resolve the issue informally with a conversation with your manager. It’s usually very challenging to raise concerns directly with the bully, so if that is your manager, look for a sympathetic colleague in a more senior position.

* Go to HR or your union representative if nothing changes. Take your evidence with you. If they suggest a reconciliation meeting, ask for HR or your union rep to be present and for notes to be taken.

* Seek advice from ACAS or Citizens Advice if things still don’t improve. Consider raising a formal complaint with HR. Get it on the record and find out what action will be taken. Make sure to follow up.

* It helps to talk through these issues with a completely impartial person. Perhaps it’s time to move on and find a new challenge in a more nurturing environment. I can help you navigate your options. We can also work on rebuilding your confidence.

Workplace bullying is unacceptable and we must call it out when we experience it.

Don’t be disheartened. There are plenty of companies with supportive cultures who don’t stand for this sort of behaviour.

Please get in touch if you’d like to talk about the issues raised in this article.

Best wishes

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