Bullying and harassment in the workplace

Why are bullying and harassment still issues in the workplace and what can companies do about it?

Despite legislation, policies and codes of conduct designed to instil the right behaviours, both bullying and harassment are still commonplace at work. Rachael Crasnow QC opened GoodCorporation’s debate on bullying and harassment in the workplace with the quote below from the Woman and Equalities Committee report from July 2018.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread and commonplace. It is shameful that unwanted sexual behaviours such as sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in workplaces. A BBC survey in November 2017 found that 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. These behaviours are unlawful, but the Government, regulators and employers have failed to tackle them, despite their responsibilities to do so under UK and international law. As a result, these legal protections are often not available to workers in practice. The #MeToo movement has put sexual harassment in the spotlight, but it is not a new phenomenon. Employers and regulators have ignored their responsibilities for too long.

In the current climate, the burden is on the victim to speak out and make a complaint, navigating a path around non-disclosure agreements and time frames for bringing complaints. From the statistics above, it is clear that the current system is inadequate.  So, what should companies be doing?


Training in a number of areas is essential if bullying and harassment is to be eradicated.

  • Workforce training: Companies need to define what constitutes bullying and also harassment (drawing on definitions in legislation), why these are wrong and how the company will respond if they occur in the workplace.
  • Clear guidance should be provided on the expected standards of behaviour and the consequences that will result from any bullying or harassment. In a global organisation, where norms of behaviour can be very different depending on the location, this can be challenging, so companies need to make expected standards of behaviour explicit and the consequences consistent.
  • This could include bystander training. It can be hard for individuals to speak up, but if staff feel that tackling bullying is everyone’s responsibility and are empowered to speak out, this can help create a culture that makes bullying and harassment unacceptable.
  • Management training: Managing people often requires difficult conversations, yet those in managerial roles rarely receive training in how to manage people. 80% of employment law cases start with a breakdown in the working relationship, most often resulting from offence caused through mis-communication or a misunderstanding. Employers need to invest time and money in the management of people to ensure that managers are properly equipped to do their jobs. This may usefully include mediation training.
  • Awareness of the impact of time pressures, deadlines and meeting budgets on behaviour also needs to be considered; managers putting downward pressure on others to meet deadlines can lead to aggressive and bullying behaviours by those managers in an attempt to meet deadlines.
  • Online training may not be sufficient, with some reporting that it is not taken as seriously as it should be with instances of training being completed by personal assistants. Face-to-face training, leadership coaching and mentor systems could be more effective.
  • Social media: Training on the company’s social media policy should be considered so that staff are made aware that online bullying about colleagues is considered a breach of the company’s anti-bullying and harassment policy. In law, an employer may be held liable for the bullying of colleagues on social media.
  • Third parties: As with many regulatory compliance areas, companies increasingly require third parties to comply with the organisation’s policies and procedures. This should apply equally to bullying and harassment with procurement teams and relationship managers making it clear what behaviours will not be tolerated.

Speak-up systems

An effective and trusted speak-up system is an essential tool in the prevention of bullying and harassment. Staff need to be confident that concerns will be properly addressed. Systems must therefore be regularly reviewed and monitored to ensure they are working effectively. Companies need to understand what their speak-up data is telling them, simply reporting the statistics is not enough. What does a drop or a spike in calls really mean?

Companies should therefore consider: –

  • Clearly communicating to staff how the speak-up process works, how concerns are dealt with and sanctions imposed to demonstrate a zero-tolerance to bullying and harassment. Visual material such as films or posters can be an effective way of doing this;
  • In some locations training to overcome any cultural reluctance to speak out might be necessary;
  • Effective reporting to the board, providing qualitative as well as quantitative data, to ensure they have a detailed understanding of the nature and potential extent of any bullying behaviours and what is being done to mitigate them.;
  • Make sure the difference between grievances and bullying concerns are correctly identified and dealt with appropriately;
  • Use of staff surveys and exit interviews to assess employee perspective on reporting concerns.

Communication and tone from the top

Ensuring that the CEO and senior leadership team are advocates for a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment can really help to embed the right culture and behaviours. It should be made clear to staff that senior leaders want to hear of any incidents of bullying or harassment. Offer several ways of reporting concerns so staff have the chance to use a route with which they are comfortable.

Where managers may have been trained and new systems introduced, make sure staff are aware that a new form of management is in place to create a better way of working and avoid any confusion as to why the management style may be different.

Use champions to make it clear what isn’t tolerated and help individuals raise concerns.


Proven cases of bullying and harassment must have sanctions and be seen to have consequences, even for the ‘rain-makers’. If staff perceive that complaints are not addressed, they will be reluctant to raise issues which will enable a bullying culture to thrive.

Ensuring there are no exceptions for the major money-makers can be a real challenge. HR teams can sometimes be compromised if they are asked to protect certain individuals by the business. To avoid potential conflicts, it may be advantageous to use non-executive board members to hear certain cases.

Appraisal process

The importance of behaviour to the organisation should form part of managers’ performance appraisals of their staff.  If a manager does not do this, identified using anonymous 360° reviews, a percentage of his or her bonus will be deducted from what is paid as a consequence.

The GoodCorporation view:

In GoodCorporation’s experience, bullying and harassment can have a significant and negative impact on an organisation, its employees and its work culture. The #MeToo movement together with a number of high-profile bullying and/or harassment scandals have raised awareness of the damage that can be caused to individuals and organisations by allowing a bullying culture to grow.

As companies respond to the new requirements of the UK Corporate Governance Code, ensuring that a strong and healthy culture is in place will become increasingly important. Taking the right steps towards building a workplace that is free from bullying and harassment will be an essential part of that process. This should begin with a strong management stance to show that bullying and harassment are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Clear polices, training, good communication, meaningful monitoring and reporting with an effective and trusted speak-up process will all be important tools that businesses should be using to establish best practice in what is likely to become an increasingly important part of culture management. GoodCorporation’s Bullying and Harassment Framework can be used as a checklist or a measurement tool to monitor and assess the effectiveness of the organisation’s anti-bullying and harassment programme.