Diversity & Inclusion, Human Resources

Are your managers responsible for bullying and harassment at work?

Lydia Watson

When you think ‘bully’, what comes to mind? Playground scuffles, stolen toys, unkind words… it’s something children do to other children. You wouldn’t expect to see a teacher pulling someone’s plaits or calling them names, because that’s an abuse of the power dynamic. 

Maybe that’s why it’s harder to identify (and challenge) workplace bullying when it’s from a manager to a junior team member – even when it crosses the line into harassment. 

What our data says: bullying at work by managers is a real problem

When leaders think about their organisation, it’s more comfortable to view inclusion challenges as isolated incidents. But in reality, that may not be the case. In our data, we’ve seen something concerning: when asked about negative incidents in the workplace, the most common theme that emerged from employees was ‘managers’*.

Digging deeper still, this was related to bullying and harassment – specifically linked to issues of gender and sexism in many cases, and occasionally to public disciplining in the workplace. Concerningly, it supports external research that found that 61% of bullies are bosses

Organisations should pay attention to the risk of bullying and harassment from managers because the results can be disastrous, but that starts with understanding the difference between the two.

* How it works: from all the answers written, our platform identifies the most common themes by using advanced language analysis technology. That means you don’t have to read 100s of comments and analyse trends manually.

Harassment and bullying: what’s the difference?

First off, both harassment and bullying are unacceptable. But there is a legal distinction between them in the UK. Both refer to unwanted behaviour – like insulting or intimidating someone – but harassment is when that’s related to someone’s protected characteristics: age, sex, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation.

Harassment is against the law, bullying isn’t. And while that’s not to say that bully behaviour is permitted in the workplace, it does mean it carries a different level of risk to the organisation. 

Bullying at work examples:

  • Constantly criticising work
  • Shouting and swearing
  • Name-calling and insults 
  • Being excluded from projects
  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Spreading rumours 
  • Ignoring someone completely

Harassment at work examples:

The same as the signs of bullying at work, but in reference to someone’s protected characteristics. It’s as simple as that.  Bullying is wrong, full stop. But when it’s done in response to someone’s ethnicity, gender, or other protected characteristic, it becomes unlawful.

What damage does bullying and harassment do to your organisation? 

40% of ‘targets’ are said to have negative health consequences, with 65% losing their jobs as a result – but we don’t need stats to understand that bullying and harassment is highly damaging to employee wellbeing. And while that should be reason enough to challenge it, there are business implications too. 

What not everyone knows it’s the impact of lower wellbeing and morale on your business. Lower productivity, lower engagement, higher turnover – these are all possible outcomes, not to mention the risk of legal issues if employees seek compensation for bullying at work. Given our data, the prevalence of manager-led bullying and harassment shows the importance of addressing it in your organisation – as it may well be present. 

How to address manager-led harassment and bullying at work: 4 practical steps

1. Understand the scale of the problem

It’s important to identify if managers are causing inclusion issues in your organisation, but how can you find out? After all, it’s hard to speak out – especially if you’re scared of it making things worse. 

That’s where an employee survey becomes your best bet. People have a safe space to answer honestly and – if you use our platform – you can see if ‘managers’ are a hot topic when it comes to bullying and harassment being discussed. 

2. Lead by example, non-combatively 

There are lots of different leadership styles, but your priority should be demonstrating that you can be authoritative without being aggressive. Think about positive reinforcement, mentorship and training, and treating people with respect and as individuals – show your managers how you expect them to act.

3. Speak up and show no tolerance

If you’re in any position of power, it’s your responsibility to challenge negative behaviours. Hear a manager chewing out their team member, in full earshot of the entire company? Remind them that they should use a private space for discipline, and that constructive criticism is more useful. Hear them take it a step too far with a rude joke? Gently remind them that they’re a manager, and as such are expected to play it safer when it comes to office banter. 

4. Make inclusion a priority focus

Consciously choose to promote inclusion, in your policies and processes. Define key metrics, speak openly about the importance of diversity and inclusion, educate your managers on the challenges that different identity groups face, be clear about the need for accountability, and do everything to make it clear that harassment of any kind is never ok. 

Qlearsite Employee Feedback Platform means you can quickly identify inclusion issues or problems with your management team – before things spiral out of control. It’s a fast, simple, affordable way to get answers. Get started for free:

It’s time to start the conversation

You may also want to read…

7 Bell Yard

Tel: (+44) 0203 915 6200
Email: hello@qlearsite.com