Line managers ill-equipped to address workplace conflict, says report

New CIPD research finds a quarter of employees think bullying and harassment are overlooked in their organisation

Line managers are more likely to be responsible for workplace bullying than any other group in the workplace, a survey has found, leading to calls for more support and training for those with management responsibilities.

A new report from the CIPD found that two-fifths (40 per cent) of employees who had experienced bullying and harassment at work said their line manager was responsible.

This compares to 29 per cent who said a colleague within their team was responsible, 18 per cent who cited colleagues elsewhere in the organisation, and just 5 per cent who said a customer or client was responsible for bullying.

The report, which surveyed more than 2,000 employers and staff about their experiences of conflict at work over the last three years, also revealed that line managers were either a source of conflict or made conflict worse.

Of the employees who reported experiencing workplace conflict, one in five (21 per cent) said they had the most serious problems with their line manager, closely followed by a colleague in the same team (20 per cent), and a third (32 per cent) reported that their manager had made the situation worse.

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, said the findings showed line managers “in such a sharp light, both in terms of potentially being the solution, but also being the cause.

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“The number of managers who are being blamed for harassment and bullying should serve as a wake-up call to employers to put training managers at the heart of efforts to prevent inappropriate workplace behaviour.” 

She added that while it was OK to express differences of opinion in the workplace, both managers and employees more generally needed to be more alert to this tipping into negativity. “The impact on somebody is now potentially harmful,” she said.

Almost two-thirds of line managers surveyed (60 per cent) reported not receiving any people management training. “What can we expect of people if they haven't been trained?” said Suff. 

The report also found that serious issues arising from workplace conflict such as bullying and harassment were thought to be ignored by some staff. A quarter (24 per cent) of employees surveyed said such problems were “swept under the carpet” in their organisation. 

According to the report, 15 per cent of employees reported experiencing workplace bullying in the last three years, while 8 per cent said they had experienced harassment in the same timeframe. Just 4 per cent said they had experienced sexual harassment.

More than half of the respondents who reported having experienced bullying said they had not reported this to their employer, despite a third (33 per cent) of workers more generally saying they felt more confident challenging sexual harassment than they did two years ago, when the #MeToo movement gained momentum on social media. 

Mike Talbot, CEO of UK Mediation, said it was important for managers to address workplace conflicts quickly. “You need a degree of confidence… to walk towards conflict situations when they happen,” he said.

He added that while healthy conflict could be a force for positive change and creativity, managers had a duty to spot when disagreements and miscommunications between colleagues were “liable to snowball into something worse”.

A significant amount of time and effort, as well as HR capacity, could be saved by dealing with conflict early, even just by having a private chat with the parties involved, Talbot said. “It really does nip it in the bud, and makes sure you preclude the great majority of these cases that would otherwise turn into what people would then call bullying and harassment,” he said.

“When you look at it, it's down to communication breakdown, a mismatch of expectations or personality clashes.”

Paul Holcroft, associate director at Croner, said the report highlighted the importance of  “employers [having] clear procedures in place for the management of conflict between staff.

“If poorly managed, or not addressed at all, conflict at work may result in the deterioration of working relationships, grievances and resignations.

“Employers can even be liable to potentially costly tribunal claims if an employee successfully claims they have been harassed and the business did not take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent this.”