Using behavioural science to address workplace bullying

Dr Paul Chadwick and Kelsey Paske explain how organisations can transform their culture through tailored training initiatives

Bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct are endemic within workplace culture. Despite extended remote working conditions as a result of Covid, unacceptable behaviours have moved online. The costs of unacceptable behaviour – to the individual and organisations – are too high. For example, the cost to the NHS has been conservatively estimated at £2.28bn as a result of turnover, productivity, sickness and poor employee relations. 

The task of addressing unacceptable workplace behaviours often sits within HR. Training is a common response to the issue and, while such initiatives are thought to increase awareness, there is little evidence that they change behaviour. 

Behavioural science methods have not routinely been applied to understand the expression of unacceptable behaviours, nor applied to design interventions. In 2019, a partnership between the Centre for Behaviour Change and the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) team at UCL was established to explore how behaviour change science could be applied to reduce bullying and harassment.

Behaviour change wheel

EDI and HR staff within UCL were trained in the behaviour change wheel (BCW) framework and used the approach to review common workplace initiatives for reducing bullying and harassment. The review led to the development of four recommendations for how behaviour change science could be used to improve the impact of training initiatives to reduce bullying and harassment within workplaces:  

  1. The need for behavioural specificity – training packages designed to prevent bullying and harassment typically focus on the expression of unacceptable behaviours. The focus is primarily on changing the behaviour of individuals who may (intentionally or unintentionally) behave in ways that intimidate or humiliate others. However, effective prevention of unacceptable behaviour also requires consideration of positive, prosocial behaviours, such as intervening to stop an incident of harassment. 

    When designing training packages to tackle bullying and harassment, HR/EDI professionals should be clear about the behaviours they want to influence and ensure the content of training is targeted towards changing those behaviours. This may require the development and implementation of different forms of training for different actors within the system.

  2. The need to consider a range of influences – at the heart of the BCW framework is the capability-opportunity-motivation-behaviour (COM-B) model, which outlines the necessary conditions for expression of a behaviour. 

    A COM-B analysis identifies the key influences on behaviours relating to bullying and harassment. For example, if we want a staff member to intervene to stop an incident of racial harassment, they will need to know what constitutes racial harassment, know how to differentiate it from other behaviours and have the interpersonal skills to address the incident (capability). They also need to believe that it is their personal and/or professional duty to take action, and be confident in their ability to do so (motivation), and the organisational culture needs to be supportive of such interventions (opportunity).

  3. The need for targeted interventions – once the key influences on a behaviour have been identified, the next step is to consider the full range of possible interventions that can be used to modify those influences. This can be achieved by applying the intervention types in the BCW framework. 

    Training initiatives to reduce bullying and harassment typically focus on increasing awareness of the issue through education and persuasion, neglecting the important contributions that could be made by developing people’s skills in communication and increasing the psychological and social conditions that increase their desire and/or confidence to take action.

  4. The need to reshape the system to change the behaviour of individuals – training interventions are often directed towards changing the behaviour of individuals. However, the systems and culture in which individuals are embedded are important drivers of the best and worst behaviours of people within organisations. 

    The BCW framework enables training providers to analyse the ways in which behaviour change interventions can be embedded and reinforced by actions that modify the organisational context, such as the revising of policies and procedures. This is achieved by consideration of the seven policy options in the BCW.

Applications beyond bullying and harassment

This project has highlighted the value of applying behavioural science to training initiatives to reduce bullying and harassment. However, the approach can be applied to any issue of organisational life where behaviour plays a role. 

Cultural transformation is required in many sectors to deliver organisational effectiveness, and behaviour is both a product and driver of workplace culture. A behavioural science approach to cultural transformation starts by specifying the desired behaviours and working upwards through a ladder of coordinated interventions to shape an organisational context, which supports their expression.

It is no longer acceptable for businesses to fail to take action to address bullying, harassment and inequality within the workforce. But when resources are limited, it is even more important that interventions are effective. The use of theories and methods of behaviour change could help HR/EDI professionals take a targeted approach to these and other issues, supporting teams to develop a tailored approach that maximises impact and makes more effective use of resources.

Dr Paul Chadwick is deputy director of the Centre for Behaviour Change, UCL, and Kelsey Paske is head of success at Culture Shift