We all need to unite against bullying

By Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Advisor at the CIPD

How organisations can prevent bullying and negative conflict occurring at work, and how to resolve it when it does.

The theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is ‘United Against Bullying’ – an apt theme given the extremely challenging environment people and organisations are facing. The need for compassion and inclusion in workplaces has never been greater.

We knew, even before the COVID-19 crisis, that negative conflict and unfair treatment like bullying was still a significant issue in many workplaces. CIPD report earlier this year found that 24% of employees think challenging issues like bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet in their organisation. The research found that 15% of workers had experienced bullying in the last three years, while 4% said they’ve been sexually harassed at work and 8% have experienced other forms of harassment.

Bullying behaviour is still widespread

Our findings shine an unwelcome spotlight on the serious problem of bullying and harassment in UK workplaces, as well as the devastating impact this kind of unfair treatment can have on individuals and organisations.

One in five employees agree that ‘people in my team sometimes reject others for being different. An inclusive workplace is built on an acceptance – and celebration – of everyone, regardless of background, identity or circumstances. Attitudes and behaviours do not have to come in the form of overt prejudice for someone to feel excluded, and so the level of disagreement with this statement is a reminder that organisations need to be alert to any hint of a working environment that doesn’t embrace diversity and tolerance.

Bullying or harassment may be against one or more people and may involve single or repeated incidents across a wide spectrum of behaviour, ranging from extreme forms of intimidation, such as physical violence, to more subtle forms such as inappropriate jokes or ignoring someone. The most common behaviour associated with bullying or harassment reported by employees is being undermined or humiliated in their job.

Any type of bullying or harassment is unacceptable and can seriously undermine an individual’s health and wellbeing if they are on the receiving end. Stress, anxiety and a loss of confidence are just some of the most common impacts.

Managers play a leading role

Line managers are typically at the forefront of dealing with conflict at work, but too often they are also the cause of it. According to our research, 40% of employees who reported being bullied or harassed said their manager was responsible for this unfair treatment.

When asked how effective their manager was in dealing with the conflict they experienced, 32% who had experienced conflict said their manager had made the situation worse. Just over a third  of employers also said one of the top barriers to effective conflict management is that managers don’t have the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour.

This highlights how easily managers can be part of the problem, but also how they can be part of the solution in creating inclusive and bullying-free working environments. Our research clearly shows that managers who have received the right training can both help to stop conflict from occurring in the first placebut also quickly and effectively resolve it when it does.

Make managers part of the solution

Managing people is a complex and challenging job. Over the years increasing responsibility has been devolved to line managers for people management, including managing absence, performance and conflict. Carrying out any of these ‘people’ activities in addition to operational responsibilities is demanding. If a manager isn’t trained and supported adequately, their people management role will be very daunting.

Relationships at work can be complex, and the pandemic and economic crisis has intensified the pressures that many are facing. The pandemic is having an unequal impact on individuals through a whole range of factors, such as personal characteristics they may have and the associated risk of infection, whether they have caring responsibilities or if they’re at risk of redundancy. This means the potential for divisiveness and relationship breakdown at work is heightened at present. Managers need to be alert to any signs of inappropriate behaviour and feel confident to challenge it.

Managers are important role models and set the tone for expectations around dignity and respect in their teams. Now more than ever they need to demonstrate the positive values of the organisation and demonstrate a sound grasp of its diversity and inclusion policies, and crucially how these should be put into practice on a day-to-day basis.

We need managers who are open, collaborative and compassionate. They should get to know people in their teams as individuals, and appreciate that they have a home life that can impact on their behaviour at work. Building trust with people and holding regular one-to-ones with team members will enable managers to check on their wellbeing and pick up on any underlying concerns.

People management training and guidance will lay the groundwork for a manager to be effective at managing conflict and preventing bullying in their teams. The training should cover areas like conflict resolution, mediation and facilitation techniques, and how to have challenging and sensitive conversations with people. They need to understand how conflict manifests itself in organisations, and what constitutes bullying and harassment. They also need to tap into the expertise of HR to help guide them with any particularly complex issues or potential disputes in their teams.

Time to take action

To help stamp out bullying at work, the CIPD is urging HR and employers to:

  • Encourage a speak up culture with a clear complaints procedure that’s well-publicised, so staff know how to raise concerns and who to turn to if their manager is the instigator.  
  • Encourage managers to resolve conflict in a positive and informal way if appropriate, given that bullying and harassment can cover a wide spectrum of behaviour that may, in some cases, be unintentional. 
  • Increase investment in people management training for managers, and provide them with specific training to help them prevent and manage conflict at work. 

 The CIPD has published new practical guidance for people managers to help them prevent and manage conflict at work. 


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