Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, in 1789, that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Had Benjamin been working in human resources in 2023, I am sure he would have added “persistent bullying and harassment at work” to this famous saying. It seems that everywhere you look these days, there is evidence that people at work still can’t rely on their colleagues not to bully them, nor their employers to prevent it from happening.
And this behaviour respects no boundaries. Following the suicide of a staff member, Amnesty International found that some of its staff have been victims of bullying and harassment at work, public humiliation, discrimination and abuses of power. According to the report, 39 per cent of staff had developed mental or physical health issues because of working there, and 65 per cent didn’t believe their well-being was a priority for their employer.
The 2018 NHS staff survey reveals that 13.2 per cent of staff report that they have been bullied by their manager, and 19.1 per cent report they have been bullied by colleagues. Both these numbers are up slightly from 2017.
In Sheffield, the CCG and a foundation trust are both wrestling with the challenges of addressing widespread criticism of their approach to allegations of bullying and harassment at work and poor handling of whistleblowing cases.
The need for independent bullying and harassment investigations
Here at Verita we carry out workplace investigations, and conducted a complex investigation in an NHS trust where an employee had committed suicide after he had been bullied at work. We have investigated anonymous allegations of bullying and harassment at work in a regulated NHS service provider. The management of Lloyd’s of London revealed its plans to address the “laddish” culture embedded in one of the City of London’s oldest institutions.
The impact on these organisations is significant and costly. Just think about the measurable damage to reputation, increased sickness absence and absenteeism, loss of skilled staff, increased costs of managing grievances and the cost of defending or avoiding Employment Tribunals. It all adds up.
Addressing a work culture which lends itself to bullying early on should help to deter future incidents. This in turn should help to avoid more serious cases and costly investigations for your organisation. However, if there is a need for an investigation, it’s advisable to work with a 3rd party like Verita that can review workplace issues completely objectively and independently.
Is bullying and harassment really inherent in work culture?
So, what are the common threads that link the above organisations together? It is almost certain that each of them has a clear, well-written policy on preventing bullying and harassment. And they will all probably have similar equality statements and disciplinary policies and procedures to address the behaviour of bullies at work. And I can guess that most senior management would say that they have a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying and harassment at work. But it is likely that policies, procedures and positive language have not been enough to prevent the systemic problems that some organisations face.
The problems, as well as the possible solutions, almost certainly lie in the culture of the organisations. And this is one of the most challenging issues for the leadership of any organisation to address because the first place to look for evidence of your organisation’s culture is in the mirror. What do people in your organisation see when they watch you at work? Do they see a leader who is visible or one who is remote? Do they see a leader who turns a blind eye or one who addresses poor behaviour robustly? Do they see a leader who wrote the values, or one who lives them?
The uncomfortable reality for leaders of organisations with culture issues is that your people, consciously or sub-consciously, will follow your lead. They will see the example you set by your own approach to managing people, how you recognise and reward them when they do well, and how you deal with poor performance an inappropriate behaviour at work. And it takes brave and honest leadership to accept that the people who have tolerated poor culture are as much to blame as those who have created it.
But, having looked in the mirror, and resolved to change your culture, what can you do about it? The key drivers of culture are the values that people have in your organisation. People at all levels at work do things in a way that fits with their values. For most people, their personal values have formed long before they came to work for you. Their sense of right and wrong, their morality and their personal principles are hard at work in all aspects of their lives, not just at work. So, if you are to change the culture of the people who work for you, your organisation’s values need to feel as though people can get behind them and use them to drive their everyday behaviour and style.
How should employers and leaders deal with bullying or harassment?
Step one for many top teams is to work out what kind of values they wish to foster in the organisation. There are many ways to achieve this, through workshops, team development sessions, facilitated interviews and so on. Once you have identified the values of your organisation the hard work starts. Leaders need to ensure that comprehensive communication, training and development programmes are implemented to enable everyone in the organisation to understand the ways in which they can work, manage and lead in support of the values. And, importantly, the key processes that regulate how people are recruited, remunerated and rewarded need to be aligned properly. As do the processes for addressing performance and misconduct at work. Employees should know what is acceptable at work, and what isn’t. They should know that bad behaviour and misconduct, particularly towards other people, will not be tolerated. And the organisation should ensure that such misconduct is dealt with promptly, fairly and robustly.
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand that can be waved over your organisation’s culture. There is no silver bullet, no shortcut and no easy way to fix a culture in which bullying and harassment and persistent misconduct at work have flourished in the past. It requires determination, focus and a long-term commitment to walking the talk. It’s up to leaders and managers to show the way. After all, knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right.
Supporting employers with bullying and harassment issues and investigations
At Verita we have a great deal of experience in investigating these issues and helping organisations address them. We have a wealth of experience in consulting to a wide range of organisations in healthcare, charities and regulated bodies. We can help with top team workshops, training, organisation and leadership development. Verita helps you to understand your current culture, plan for a better one, and deliver sustainable strategies to deliver lasting positive changes in your organisation. And finally, we conduct independent investigations into bullying and harassment should your organisation be affected by a complex case.