How to deal with bullying or harassment in the workplace

Both bullying and harassment are all too present in the workplace today. In the education sector, awash with organisational change, job insecurity, mounting deadlines, dwindling resources and overworked education professionals, the occurrence of these unwanted behaviours is unfortunately all too common. Being the target of bullying or harassment can be even more frustrating when you consider that the education sector itself has such well-established strategies for combating these behaviours amongst pupils and students, but very little in place to safeguard teachers.

Given that the pressures on the education sector are not going to disappear overnight, this factsheet will look into what constitutes bullying or harassment and what to do if you are in the unfortunate position of being subjected to these unwanted behaviours.

What are bullying and harassment?

Bullying and/or harassment can occur between any roles within a company. It can be from manager to staff, between groups of staff or just one member of staff abusing another. It can be general, where one person just lashes out at everyone they work with, or it can be felt by one person who feels targeted individually.

Harassment and bullying are terms that are very often interchanged, and there is much overlap, so it is good to look at the difference between the two. If you are able to identify what is experienced when under such behavioural pressure in the workplace, you'll be in a better position to combat it.

Harassment has a strong physical component, such as contact and touch in all its forms, intrusion into personal space and possessions, damage to possessions (including a person's work) and the like. Harassment tends to be motivated by an outward personal characteristic of the target, such as gender, race, age, disability and so on.

Workplace bullying is almost exclusively psychological or organisational and is often motivated by a hidden personal characteristic of the target, such as competence, popularity or integrity. Workplace bullying tends to consist of unwarranted criticisms and false allegations, sometimes disguised as "management," and without openly discriminatory terms. Both behaviours are of course unwanted by the recipient, and all the recipient wants is for the bullying or harassment to stop.

How to respond to being harassed

The nature of harassment means that if you fail to address the harassing behaviour, it will continue. This is because the harasser gets their sense of power by your acceptance of the harassment.

The only way to ensure that the unwanted behaviour discontinues is that you directly ask the perpetrator to stop the unwanted behaviour. For example, "Please do not touch me/speak to me in that way; I consider it to be unacceptable. Please do not do that again." When providing such feedback, you should concentrate on the behaviour of the person attacking you — the specific action that you found unacceptable — and not the personal characteristics of him or her. If you do react in kind, that is, by attacking the perpetrator in return, not only does that escalate the issue, but you could end up being accused of harassment yourself. This would only add to your difficulties in the workplace.

Hopefully, your highlighting the unwanted behaviour will make the perpetrator think twice before trying this again. Additional strategies to employ if the harassment continues are covered later in this article.

How to react to being bullied

Bullying is less straightforward and therefore more difficult to address. It is also sometimes difficult to determine whether it even is bullying that you are experiencing. For instance, if you suspect that you are being bullied by your manager, you may not even recognise the behaviour as such at first; it may seem like your manager just gives tough criticism. In the teaching profession, job pride is high and vocational commitment is strong, so feedback asking someone to make changes can be especially difficult to hear.

Sometimes the lines get blurred, so it is important to learn how to differentiate constructive criticism and well-intentioned feedback from putting someone down. Try to determine if the "criticism" is an attack on your innate traits as a person, or if it's based on behaviour that you can reasonably change or competencies you can reasonably develop. If the bullying feels like a personal attack, ask yourself whether the interaction you are experiencing is reasonable.

Bullying can take many forms, including exclusion, change or misrepresentation of your work, gossiping behind your back, or being made to feel that you are different or inadequate. It can sometimes be accompanied by verbal aggression, being shouted at or use of inappropriate language.

Additional strategies to employ

Some of the following strategies should be employed when suffering from either harassment or bullying.

Respond — Do not react

If you are the target of unwanted behaviour or attention, you should merely respond in an assertive way that does not include an emotional reaction or "tit-for-tat" behaviour. This can be difficult to achieve, but the harasser or bully will persist in their behaviour if they see that you react emotionally to them; this gives them a sense of power over you. Over-reaction or an overly emotional response invites the bully or harasser to repeat the behaviour.

Ground yourself

After experiencing bullying or harassment, you should ground yourself and try to not let this affect your sense of self-esteem. If you need to, remember positive things that you recognise in yourself. If you have been successful in the past, nothing has changed: You can still be successful in the future. Visualisation back to happier times can give a sense of self-validation in the here and now. It is important that you recognise your strengths and use them to stay grounded.

Tackle it informally

If you feel able to tackle the bullying or harassment informally by directly trying to resolve the situation with the perpetrator, this is often the most effective way of solving the issue. Can you sit down over a cup of coffee and have a conversation about how the unwanted behaviour is affecting you, or would it result in a slanging match? If you do feel able to have a one-to-one, then the main focus in the conversation should be the behaviour and how it is affecting you. You need to avoid direct personal criticism of the perpetrator in order to achieve a successful outcome.

Find a champion

If the harassment or bullying does not stop, then you need to seek the support of your manager or others in your organisation who can help you address the unwanted behaviour. It is important that you choose someone in the organisation that you respect and trust to confide in. They may be able to give you a perspective on the situation you had not thought of, or they may have been employed in the organisation longer than you and may have insights that would be useful to you in how you might proceed.

Don't bottle it up

It's not always possible to involve family and friends in your difficulty, since you may feel that they have enough to deal with or that your issue may seem irrelevant or trivial to them. You might even have a feeling of guilt that you have to bring a problem such as this to them. However, the old saying "a problem shared is a problem halved" should be remembered here. You need all the support that you can get in this challenging time.

Look after yourself

When under pressure from bullying or harassment, you may feel like going into your shell, begin to see yourself as the problem and fail to look after yourself. Don't do this to yourself. Make sure that you look after your health, ensuring that you sleep at least seven hours a night, eat regular and healthy meals, and get some exercise for at least half an hour a day. Following these three simple rules will help you maintain your well-being and resilience.

Keep a diary

What if you have followed the above steps, and the harassment or bullying persists? You should keep a diary of what happens and when. This has a number of benefits: Putting what is wrong down on paper helps you process what you are experiencing and gives you perspective. In cases of overt harassment or bullying, keeping notes and recording any witnesses to the behaviour will be essential if you decide to tackle this formally within your organisation.

Steps you can take

In addition to the above strategies, these are some additional practical steps you may find helpful.

Familiarise yourself with bullying and harassment policies

Employee portals, employment handbooks and contracts of employment will outline the bullying and harassment policies of your organisation. It's a good idea to read these thoroughly: Find out your company's definition of what is unacceptable behaviour and what protection you have as an employee. The policies may even outline the procedure to follow if you wish to make a complaint to resolve the situation (more on this below).

Speak to HR

If the situation has not resolved itself, and you are still highly stressed, it may be time to speak to someone in Human Resources about the issue. This does not mean making a formal complaint, but you should be able to have a conversation about the poor conduct that you are experiencing without making it formal. You can then perhaps decide whether the formal route of submitting a complaint is the only way to stop the bullying or harassment.

Talk to your union representative

If you are a emember of a union, speak to your union representative.

Take formal action

As harassment is generally motivated by personal characteristics, your rights are protected under the law in the Equal Rights Act 2010. You should not have to suffer without being able to redress the extreme stress that you are under. Although stressful in itself, making a formal complaint about bullying and harassment may be the only way forward. "Just ignore it" is what most people are told when they're being bullied or harassed. You should not have to.

Further help is at hand

If you feel that you have no one to confide in about the bullying or harassment, or even if you just want to talk about your experience with someone who is impartial, then why not do so in a safe, confidential space? Our confidential helpline is available 24/7, with qualified counsellors to support you in what you are facing and assist you in finding a way forward that's right for you. It's a free service, so why not make use of it? What do you have to lose?

 

Workplace Options (2017, June). How to deal with bullying or harassment in the workplace. London: Author.

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.