The subtle signs of workplace bullying and how to deal with it

(Alamy/PA) (Alamy/PA)

Bullying in the workplace can be subtle and insidious, which may make it harder to spot than in other situations – and more difficult to understand if you’re a victim of it.

Relationships in the workplace are different to those that most people will experience in their wider life, says Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, an HR, employment law and health and safety consultancy.

“There’s a hierarchy at work, people are given instructions to follow and their performance is judged. It may not be particularly visible, and may not happen all of the time, but bullying doesn’t need to follow consistent and ongoing patterns.”

Workplace bullying typically occurs over a period of time and can be a process of emotional, micro-aggressions or manipulation, adds Danielle Ayres, partner at employment law at Primas Law.

What are the signs?

There are many different types of bullying. “It can take place in various forms, but usually involves acts (or sometimes inactions) that hurt, belittle or isolate a person. It may be direct or indirect, involve just one individual, or a group and can occur in written communications, such as text messages and emails or verbal, by phone or face to face,” says Ayres.

It can have a severe impact on victims, making working life miserable. “Since work tends to make up a large proportion of an individual’s life, this can really impact them – breaking down confidence and self-esteem,” she adds. “The impact of bullying behaviour can leave individuals feeling extremely low and upset, in some cases this can cause people to feel anxious, depressed and can result in them getting ill.”

Warning signs could include an employee becoming withdrawn, stopping engaging with colleagues as they normally would, their work dropping in standard or productivity or increased absenteeism.

“Employers should also look into changes of personality,” says Palmer. “A usually mild-mannered employee may have a sudden outburst that is completely out of character. Assumptions shouldn’t be made; not all changes in behaviour will be due to bullying. But they should certainly trigger action to find out what’s wrong.

What if the bullying is done by a manger?

Sadly bullying can also come from managers to their direct reports, not just colleagues on the same level.

It can be especially subtle because managers naturally have established routes for feedback and criticism. They generally have control over their team members’ work allocation, and they’re likely to manage communication around the team, says Palmer.

“These responsibilities may provide opportunities for bullying, whether or not the manager is aware of what they are doing. Allocating excessive workloads, contacting an employee outside of their working hours, singling them out for criticism in front of the rest of the team or excluding them from information communications could all constitute bullying.”

While Ayres says there are certain things her firm sees time and time again when managers bully staff.

“A common example is where a manager’s expectations change or are different towards one member of staff compared to others – they may exclude certain individuals from meetings, invite some of their team for lunch, or after- work drinks and leave another out.”

It can extend to opportunities for progression and development too. “They may favour other members of the team – giving them the better jobs to do or the opportunity to work with larger clients or customers. Some managers may also set their expectations differently for team members, giving some unachievable and unreasonable targets or standards, which they know cannot be met – setting one up to fail.”

Even micro-management can enter malicious realms. Ayres says to look out for managers who are being excessively critical and only pointing out negatives.

“One case I dealt with involved a manager who would shout at a member of staff in front of other staff and customers, even for the slightest mistake. This made the individual feel very embarrassed and isolated her from the rest of the team. A performance improvement plan was then put in place, even though the individual was actually performing better than others on her team,” shares Palmer.

What should victims do?

If you think you’re experiencing workplace bullying, try and keep notes of what is being said and done, says Ayres. “These things can happen over the course of many weeks, months – sometimes even years, so regularly capturing the detail will make it much easier for the individual to recall dates, witnesses etc at a later stage.”

The first step is always to try and sort the matter out informally. Ayres says to approach your line manager to explain what’s happening (providing they aren’t the perpetrator). Be honest about what your preferred resolution would be.

The alternative avenue is to approach the person in question, if you feel comfortable. “Tell them how the behaviour is making you feel,” she says, “Bullying may not be deliberate.”

If it needs to go further than this, ask for a copy for your company’s grievance procedure and submit a formal complaint. You have a right to expect your employer to take the complaint extremely seriously, and address the matter straight away – even take you out of the situation if needs be, like moving you to a different line manager or team.

“If the bullying continues or the problem continues even after the grievance process has taken place, an employee does have the right to take legal action,” points out Ayres.