Half of UK workers say their workplace does not take reports of bullying seriously, research has found, as experts urge firms to create work cultures where staff feel safe to disclose incidents.
The poll of 2,000 UK adults, by Bolt Burdon Kemp, found that only 50 per cent felt complaints of bullying, discrimination or harassment were taken seriously, with 54 per cent saying they would feel comfortable making a complaint.
Young people were the least likely to say their workplace was supportive: 40 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 reported this, compared with 56 per cent of 35 to 44 year olds – while those on lower incomes were also less likely to say their workplace was supportive.
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Just one in five respondents (19 per cent) said they understood the law when it came to bullying, discrimination or harassment.
Commenting on the findings, Lisa Seagroatt, managing director at HR Fit for Purpose, cautioned that when employees don’t report incidents of bullying or harassment, it has a negative impact on workplace culture.
“Employers need to understand that there is a direct connection between cases of bullying not being addressed and the creation of an unhealthy workplace culture… this impacts negatively on both the business and their most valuable asset – the people,” she said.
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The report found that male and female respondents were equally likely to say their workplace took bullying seriously, with 50 per cent of both groups reporting this. However, men were more likely than women to say that they would feel comfortable making a complaint about discrimination at work (58 per cent and 52 per cent respectively).
Gemma Bullivant, HR coach and consultant, described the findings as “disappointing”. Employers have a “duty of care” to support employees in speaking up about bullying, she said. “This is achieved through a mix of the right leadership and management behaviours, and regular communication and education for employees and managers.
“We need to create robust policies, ensure employees are aware and understand them, and then crucially create the right environment for these policies to be applied,” said Bullivant. “Getting these basics right is not only our moral duty, but a commercial priority too.”
She added that psychological safety sat “at the heart” of workplace culture. “We know we have a psychologically safe culture when employees feel safe to challenge, ask questions, raise concerns and speak up, without fear of reprimand or detrimental treatment,” she said.
The research, which was conducted in May, found those on lower incomes were less likely to feel comfortable making a complaint about workplace discrimination; 50 per cent of those earning less than £15,000 reported this, compared to 63 per cent of those earning £45,000 to 55,000.
Paul Holcroft, managing director at Croner, the findings should be a “wake up call” to employers. “The power in the relationship between lower-paid workers and their employers is heavily weighted to the employer. And yet, they provide vital work without which the employer would not be able to function,” he said.
Holcroft said that the effects of workplace bullying can extend to home life, mental health, and productivity, and that employers needed to review or introduce bullying and harassment policies, and promote them within the workforce.
“They also need to be prepared to put these into practice when needed, and start taking these matters a lot more seriously,” he said.
Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, suggested that managers could prevent bullying by making their organisations inclusive and challenging inappropriate behaviour. She added that with no legal definition of bullying, it may be appropriate for employers to “resolve the issue informally” before taking further action.
“Employers also need to invest in specific training for managers to help them manage conflict at work, such as having difficult conversations… it's really important that a speak-up culture is encouraged and people are familiar with their organisation's complaints procedure so they know how to raise a concern.”