The number of employment tribunal claims lodged citing allegations of bullying has increased by 44 per cent over the past 12 months, reaching record highs, new research has revealed.
The analysis, conducted by law firm Fox & Partners, found that bullying claims increased from 581 to 835 between March 2021 and March 2022.
The firm dubbed the findings a “canary in the mine” moment for many organisations, suggesting this may signal that leadership teams are failing to address a growth in toxic work cultures.
The company also cautioned that old-fashioned strategies for identifying and dealing with problematic behaviours risk being ineffective in changing working environments, such as remote, hybrid and flexible working.
Ivor Adair, partner at Fox & Partners, said tackling workplace bullying was “no easy task, particularly in changing work environments. The record number of bullying claims is a worrying sign that some leadership teams have struggled to maintain healthy workplaces during the shift to hybrid working.”
For this reason, the firm warned that the virtual working environment might have led to new patterns of bullying that are more difficult to identify, such as cutting remarks being made on video calls, which are hard to address positively; deliberately leaving colleagues out of remote meetings; or using messaging apps to gossip during colleagues’ presentations.
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A workplace where bullying is present can lead to a loss of talent by negatively impacting on employees’ performance and wellbeing, as those being bullied could be less productive than their colleagues, the company said.
In order to help prevent the rise of unhealthy work cultures, the organisation suggested that employers aim to make improvements to develop positive work environments, with changes being made at a systemic level, not just when a problem escalates.
Other suggestions that emerged from the research were encouraging more effective and varied methods of communication, along with giving senior staff training and guidelines on providing feedback to avoid misinterpretation.
Emphasising the importance of ensuring senior managers were well-placed to detect and address workplace concerns, Adair said employers should consider a suite of techniques that will effect lasting change, such as coaching, or more structured supervision and pastoral care programmes.
“Employers must also be willing to enforce company policies to protect and support colleagues at risk, if workplace cultures are to be improved,” he added.
Echoing this, Rebecca Holt, co-founder and director of Working Mindset, said it was the responsibility of managers and leaders to create psychological safety in workplaces “because their position of power naturally impacts their ability to speak up”. “Leaders need the skills to invite opinions, ideas and challenges,” she added.
To establish safe working environments that do not tolerate bullying, she said a crucial step is rewarding and not punishing acts of vulnerability, such as speaking up, sharing concerns and admitting mistakes.
To foster psychological safety, Holt pointed out that leaders carry the tasks of “making people feel included, making people feel safe to learn, making them feel safe to contribute and challenge the status quo without fear of being embarrassed or punished in some way”.
As well as hurting trust and reducing productivity, Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, emphasised that employers’ inability to tackle bullying issues could be perceived as them not complying with their duty of care towards employees, and could result in employment tribunals.
“While it isn’t possible to bring a claim directly to an employment tribunal on the grounds of bullying, if the behaviour relates to one of the protected characteristics, then an employee can make a claim of discrimination under the harassment provisions,” Price said.
He cautioned that bullying was not always a visible attack on someone. “It can also include preventing another employee’s promotion by blocking their progress, or setting them up to fail by giving unachievable targets,” Price added.