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Bad for workers and firms, bullying is on the rise
Hajera Blagg, Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

For more and more people, bullying does not simply end in the schoolyard – it continues, too, in the workplace.


As part of National Anti-Bullying Week this week, the conciliation and arbitration service Acas published a report yesterday (November 16) revealing that workplace bullying is experiencing a significant rise in the UK.


In the past year alone, Acas received 20,000 phone calls related to workplace bullying, which the organisation defines as, “any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended.”


Some of the callers noted that the bullying they had suffered had driven them to consider suicide or self-harm.


In 1998, managers in 7 per cent of workplaces reported grievances concerning bullying or harassment, but this figure rose to 8 per cent in 2004 and again jumped to 11 per cent in 2011, the most recent year in which the UK-wide Workplace Employment Relations Survey was undertaken.


A TUC survey published last week found that a full third of workers have experienced workplace bullying, with women (34 per cent) more likely to be victims than men (23 per cent).


Although peer-to-peer bullying happens too, the survey found that nearly three-quarters of cases of bullying at work were carried out by a manager.


One expert noted why the vast majority of bullying cases are perpetrated by managers against their employees.


“This type of bullying often arises due to an unequal balance of power, with managers attempting to control the behaviour of their subordinates through coercive methods,” said assistant professor of human resource management Shainaz Firfiray of Warwick Business School.


UNITElive has previously spoken to a worker who has been the target of workplace bullying and harassment.


Kieran Duffy, a waiter on the minimum wage, recounted to UniteLive last year his personal experience with workplace bullying. Earlier in his career, he worked at a French restaurant where managers mercilessly bullied their staff just out of spite.


Duffy recalled carrying a bowl of French onion soup, and being punched repeatedly in the arm by a manager who called him ‘an Irish fa**ot.’

“Management is in such complete control of every move you make, and most are so scared of losing their jobs, so often people don’t say anything,” he said. “When that incident happened to me, it was before I knew my rights at work. I didn’t know that could be considered assault.”


Duffy considers this experience with workplace bullying the catalyst that inspired him to join a trade union.


“Now, when I negotiate with management with the union backing me, the managers treat me with respect; they’re polite to me,” he said. “These were the same people who previously punched and abused me.”



But for far too many workers, unlike Duffy, they don’t have the support they might otherwise get from a union, and work in fear and isolation.


The Acas report highlighted that workplace bullying is often under-reported – many employees feel that their treatment is not serious enough to warrant doing anything about.


But what may begin as smaller instances of mistreatment often escalates unchecked until it has severely affected a worker’s performance and life at home. Workplace bullying has wider economic costs, too.


As one Acas helpline adviser noted in the report, “The number of people you get (calling the helpline) who either are genuinely suicidal, … or are on medication, or long-term absent, when you think about how many that does actually represent across the UK … the cost to the UK economy and to the NHS and to everything like that must be absolutely enormous.”


Indeed, Acas highlighted in its report that, when accounting for lost productivity, turnover and bullying-related absenteeism, the total cost of workplace bullying amounts to nearly £14bn and a 1.5 per cent reduction in overall UK productivity. This would mean an overall financial impact of £17.65bn to the national GDP.


Acas found that while workplace bullying cuts across sectors throughout the economy, certain workers are more likely to be the victims of bullying than others, including  public sector minority ethnic workers; women in traditionally male-dominated occupations; workers with disabilities or long-term health problems; lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender people; and workers in health care.


Unite assistant general secretary for equalities Diana Holland argued that workplace bullying is part of a wider culture and economic environment in which workers, particularly those already on the margins of society, are thrown into a race to the bottom.


Bullying culture

“This report from Acas on workplace bullying exposes the bullying culture faced by working men and women across workplaces,” she said.


“We have found bullying to be unlawful harassment and discrimination against women, black Asian and ethnic minorities, disabled, LGBT, migrant workers, young and older workers.


“It is also used to impose unacceptable working practices like zero hours contracts, intensive working times, labour management systems, and increased workload with inadequate training and support,” Holland added.


“It is shameful that this serious issue of health and safety and equality is on the rise and it must be addressed as a major priority,” she went on to say.


Bad for workplaces

“Bullying is bad for workplaces on every count – it is part of the intensive ‘race to the bottom’ on standards; it demoralises, creates serious stress and mental health issues, and undermines fairness, equality and safety at work.”


“Unite stands for dignity and respect at work and opposition to all forms of bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Holland explained.


“In union organised workplaces, we need to ensure there are clear commitments and fair procedures to prevent and deal with bullying, backed up by union equality reps with full facilities.


“Unite supports full statutory rights for all union equality reps and a clear legal right for every worker to be treated with dignity and to be free from bullying at work. We must make sure this report leads to renewed action at all workplaces.”



  • Are you suffering from bullying in the workplace? Follow the TUC’s new guidance on workplace bullying and harrassment here.


  • And if you aren’t yet a union member, it’s worth joining – unions actively work to tackle bullying, harassment and discrimination. Find out more here.




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