Are you pretending not to know about a culture of organisational bullying?

6 minutes
Joe Treacy

By Joe Treacy

Guest post by Naomi Irvine

When I ask delegates to offer a working definition of bullying, the exercise yields some fascinating reactions. They range from a quick internet search for a word-perfect definition to a painful personal revelation, and anything in between. Some will mention a specific behaviour, an incident, an individual who made their life a misery, the ‘elephant in the room’, a job they left, a family member who is a shadow of their former self. Overwhelmingly, for those who have experienced it, they haven’t forgotten the pervasive imprint of how it made them think, feel, and behave.

However painful the exercise in recalling or describing bullying behaviour, it’s a necessary one. Bullying behaviour, whether experienced directly or witnessed, can cause self-doubt, fear, distress, loss of trust, and deterioration in mental health. Research by the CIPD found that 24% of those surveyed thought that ‘challenging issues’ like bullying and harassment were ‘swept under the carpet’ and that over half of those who had experienced bullying and harassment in the past three years hadn’t reported the last incident (CIPD, 2020).

The cost to the organisation

Bullying costs organisations dearly:

  • staff are not fully functional in their jobs, leading to loss of productivity and lower organisational performance
  • it leads to higher staff turnover, with the associated costs of recruitment and induction
  • revelations of the behaviour can lead to reputational damage, loss of goodwill and lack of public trust
  • more management time is needed to cope with dysfunction
  • it can incur financial penalties, compensation and litigation costs

Arriving at a shared understanding of bullying

It sometimes surprises individuals that there is no legal definition of bullying (as distinct from harassment, which is covered by the Equality Act 2010). Even in the absence of a legal definition or a clearly-defined policy, an employer has a legal duty of care to protect members of staff while they’re at work, which includes protection from bullying (ACAS).

Bullying is:

persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious, or insulting behaviour; abuse of power; or unfair penal sanctions. These make the recipient feel upset, threatened, humiliated, or vulnerable, undermine their self-confidence, and may cause them to suffer stress (McAvoy and Murtagh, 2003).

Additionally, Rayner and Hoel (1997) describe five categories of bullying behaviour that are essential to our understanding of its effect on personal levels of stress and self-confidence. These are:

  • threats to professional status
  • threats to personal standing
  • isolation
  • overwork
  • destabilisation

Put together, an environment in which bullying thrives can perpetuate dysfunction, feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, and intimidation, making it harder to report and confront.

Show, don’t tell

There are myriad examples of bullying behaviour: instantaneous rages and disconcerting changes in behaviour, put-downs, humiliation, name-calling, gossip, micro-managing, unrealistic workloads or targets, for example. These examples are sometimes more easily described, documented, and investigated.

But covert features of bullying are just as distressing and can be harder to evidence, such as: members of staff feeling like they’re ‘walking on eggshells’, withholding information, exclusion, removing areas of responsibility without explanation or right of reply, suggesting colleagues are ‘overreacting’ or ‘imagining things’ when they raise concerns, interfering in or breaking trusted relationships, or performance managing a member of staff during a time of extreme personal distress.

Context is everything

What’s acceptable and expected in one sector won’t be accepted in another. Organisational context and culture perform an important role in understanding acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. And just because the behaviour is accepted, it doesn’t make it acceptable.

From my professional experience of delivering bullying and harassment interventions, I’ve found that dealing effectively with bullying behaviour requires complex and nuanced engagement with the topic. Leaders at all levels need to be able to:

  • recognise and describe the overt and covert features of bullying behaviour, and their impact on the recipient’s mood, health, confidence, and performance
  • accept that in some cases, bullying behaviour is central to the way the organisation is run
  • develop the competence to effectively and appropriately confront attitudinal and behavioural issues
  • build awareness of the tendency to stereotype or misdiagnose bullies and victims
  • judge the role of organisational culture in tolerating, excusing, confronting, or challenging inappropriate behaviour
  • foster a collective sense of responsibility and advocacy for upholding dignity at work
  • demonstrate compassionate leadership, in particular, acknowledging the suffering of others, and being aware of their own personal distress when listening to others’ accounts
  • support individuals and teams to learn from experience and recover from the impact of harmful behaviour
  • hold the space for difficult conversations about the conditions and circumstances that allowed bullying to occur in the first place.
How to put prevention of bullying at the heart of your culture

The most powerful step you can take is to invest in a leadership culture that promotes dialogue, respect, trust, and connectedness. Self-aware leaders who can give and receive feedback, share information, and take appropriate action are those that build a culture of trust and psychological safety.

If you're worried about pockets of bullying behaviour and want to promote a better culture, I offer an independent, fresh pair of eyes to help you do just that. Please contact me on LinkedIn to arrange a confidential conversation.


Brian R McAvoy, and John Murtagh, Editorial: Workplace bullying – the silent epidemic, BMJ 2003;326:776

C Rayner and H Hoel (1997) A summary review of literature related to workplace bullying. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 7:181-91

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