Could data solve workplace bullying and harassment issues?

Elva Ainsworth runs through six methods HR can use to help identify and manage inappropriate behaviour

Credit: SvetaZi/iStockphoto/Getty Images

No one really wants bullying and harassment to be happening. We all want our organisation to be a productive, supportive and inspiring place to work – not one where people feel intimidated or offended, or where people find coercion to be the first choice way of influencing others. Despite this, it is happening, or is it? There are complaints, bad press, legal cases and personal experiences that tell us bullying and harassment is going on but it is hard to know why, how much and what to do about it. This overview looks at a few ways to evaluate the situation in your company and some ideas as to how to improve the respect and civility in your culture.

Bullying and harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that is offensive or intimidating to others, or an abuse of power that humiliates or causes emotional harm to someone. For behaviour to be classed as ‘bullying’ it must take place repeatedly or purposefully (or with ill intent). It will not always be obvious or noticed by others. The less obvious examples include putting someone down in meetings, intentionally giving someone a heavier workload than others, excluding someone from team social events or consistently undermining someone’s authority. By law, bullying and unwanted behaviour becomes ‘harassment’ (Equality Act 2010) when it is related to any of the ‘protected characteristics’ such as age, disability, etc. 

Employers are liable for harassment suffered by their employees and are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment, but this is tough when you may not even know how much is going on, and, when you find out, it is not so easy to change people’s behaviour. Responsibility alone does not provide you with the tools. So, how do you find out how much bullying and harassment is going on in your organisation? Here are six possible methods:

Self reviews 

Contextualised and detailed self evaluations can bring to light the current norms of behaviour and can highlight the impact and consequences. This can raise awareness and expectations of action and change so is best supported properly by further initiatives. 

360-degree feedback 

An effective 360 can provide a voice for all employees surrounding a manager. It can enable a detailed evaluation of perceived fairness, respect and inclusion, and can helpfully clarify the true experience of current working relationships via an anonymous process. This intervention is also best delivered as an integral part of a wider programme of developmental/cultural change with anonymity guaranteed, independent debriefs and follow-up coaching support.

Employee surveys 

These are useful to regularly gauge current levels of perception, emotion and opinion. If carefully designed to safely cover the specifics of bullying and harassment it can bring to light the problem areas, although the specific leaders involved will not necessarily be identifiable or themselves get the connection. However, it serves to show the extent of the problem.

Professional observation 

This can provide objective and detailed analysis and feedback on appropriateness of behaviour. Permission needs to be granted for this to be powerfully shared and explored, but this can be a good source of data and a powerful catalyst for change.

Review of HR data 

Looking at the results of exit interviews, engagement surveys, fairness of salaries, the number of complaints, tribunal cases, etc can be very enlightening. It all tells a story and can indicate where to look further.

Intentional focus groups 

Led by an external facilitator, if a safe space is created, employee experience can be heard and shared in a useful way. Real examples of recent behaviour can be fully described and sources can be indicated.

Such methods allow you to explore current perceptions and behaviours. You can discover patterns and ‘hot spots’ and you may identify problem individuals, but it is important not to focus solely on individual behaviour. Transformation of behaviour will only occur in the context of the cultural dynamic, so the long-term solution is to take on your ‘culture’. Your ‘bullies’ are being inappropriate because they are allowed to be; something about the dynamics at play is encouraging it and making it worthwhile. However, culture change is not so easy. It requires commitment from the top, visible leadership and long-term focus. It may require policy, structural and strategy changes, as well as training and investment, but none of this will be effective if you have not fully understood the unhealthy dynamics at play.

Diagnostics can allow you to delve into the factors contributing to your current culture and can also empower those participating to move forward positively and powerfully. If a number of these methods show up bullying and harassment then you will also likely see a lack of motivation and satisfaction, and issues of trust and wellbeing. There may not be space for creativity, innovation and growth. You will get a feel for the ‘toxicity’ of the current culture. The best way forward may be to engage a diagnostic approach that will help you determine the extent, location and factors connected to bullying and harassment in your organisation in a way that will enable those involved to learn, reflect and modify their behaviour. Diagnosis can become a crucial part of organisational therapy.

Elva Ainsworth is CEO of Talent Innovations