Bullying in the workplace

Barbara Jeffery, UCU Branch Secretary Tower Hamlets College (pc) discusses how to tackle bullying in the workplace. First published in the Summer 2014 edition of the rs21 magazine.


Research suggests that since the onset of austerity there has been a significant rise in bullying and harassment in the workplace. Studies show a definite link between economic conditions and bullying, where the threat of redundancy, increased workloads and the the weakness of trade unions have all contributed to a bullying culture.

In 2010 the Guardian reported that it was a major contributing factor to workplace stress, with 13.7m working days lost each year as a result of stress and depression resulting from bullying at work.

It is not just the private sector that is affected by this increase: reports have also suggested an increase in the public sector, including many colleges. A survey carried out in 2007 by the University and Colleges Union (UCU) showed that the culture of bullying by managers or colleagues had increased to ‘very stressful’ levels across both Higher Education and Further

A further survey showed the issue was the single most common concern facing UCU members, with responses from over 4,000 members nationwide, saying that the issues they were most likely to take to branch officers were bullying and harassment.
There is, as yet, no legal definition of bullying, and yet cases of bullying at work have been pursued through employment law, health and safety and protection from harassment legislation.

So what is bullying?

UCU’s definition of bullying and/or harassment includes:

  • constantly criticising competent staff
  • removing their responsibilities, or giving them trivial tasks to do
  • shouting at staff
  • persistently picking on staff in front of others, or in private
  • obstructing professional development / blocking promotion
  • regularly making the same person the butt of jokes
  • constantly attacking a member of staff in terms of their professional or personal standing
  • setting a person up to fail by overloading them with work or setting impossible deadlines
  • regularly and deliberately ignoring or excluding individuals from work activities
  • ignoring staff views and opinions
  • different rules for different people
  • criticism and threats excessive monitoring
  • unrealistic expectations

This is not an exhaustive list as bullying can take many forms, but whatever form it takes, the crucial point is that any behaviour that is unwarranted and unwelcome by the recipient should not be condoned.

How to tackle bullying

One of the most important approaches for tackling bullying in the workplace is to raise awareness, making the impact of bullying transparent.

An example of this is how UCU branch officers and members at Tower Hamlets College have organised a campaign against bullying and harassment in the workplace. This was in response to reports of an increase in cases linked to bullying.
The following are some of the strategies UCU at Tower Hamlets have adopted to tackle these issues:

    • Raising bullying and harassment as an issue in formal negotiations, and declaring the presence of a bullying culture.
    • Responding to any cases of bullying immediately through meetings with the employer, signalling to them that such behaviour would not go
    • unnoticed or be tolerated.
    • Organising branch meetings where members could talk openly and discuss strategies.
    • Regular contact with workroom reps through committee meetings to flag up any cases.
    • Educating members and raising awareness through newsletters and other publications.
    • Organising and setting up weekly ‘drop in surgeries’ where members can come to a central point to talk openly with branch officers.

As with every campaign we are stronger as a collective than as individuals. Tackling bullying is tackling the new management culture.


  1. Glad to see the piece on workplace bullying – a very important issue.

    The first and most basic piece of advice we always give to anyone suffering bullying is to keep a diary, logging all incidents – what, where, when, who, witnesses etc, and how it made them feel. Because bullying is usually about a pattern of behaviour rather than a single incident, each one can be relatively easy for the employer to dismiss – you need details of the whole pattern. It is so hard to piece this together after the event.

    The second piece of advice we’d give people is to challenge individual incidents of behaviour at the time, if you feel able. It’s much easier to say “please don’t do X again; it made me feel like Y; I don’t think it’s acceptable and would like you to do Y in future” in a particular incident than it is to call someone a bully and tackle the whole pattern. Many bullies don’t realise they are bullying and if challenged in this way (particularly if colleagues back you up) the behaviour can change. If not, at least it’s good for your diary!

    The other point that struck me is about trying to collectivise the issue and deal with it by mobilising workers rather than just talking to management. Examples could be:
    1) Distributing anti-bullying awareness literature in the area affected, wearing stickers, or getting people on training
    2) Getting colleagues to club together to buy the person being bullied a box of chocolates or bunch of flowers or whatever, as a visible gesture of solidarity
    3) Getting everyone displaying union material in the area affected – even non-members
    4) We had union “rear view mirrors” people could stick on their workstations to see when a bullying manager was coming. Everyone did it. He asked, jokingly, whether it was to keep an eye on him – people said “yes” which completely freaked him out.
    I’m sure there are loads more, but the principle is the same – give people confidence to back each other up rather than just relying on management to sort it out. Few bullies will stand up to a crowd.

    Some useful resources:
    a) ACAS: http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1864
    b) Bully online: http://www.bullyonline.org/


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