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How to... spot bullying at work

Identifying bullying, particularly in managers, is a difficult skill. The problem with bullying is that it can't usually simply be spotted - it's a much more insidious set of toxic behaviours displayed by a person who uses their personal and professional power to crush the power of others.

Unfortunately, bullying can often continue unchallenged for months or even years in an organisation before anyone other than the victims become aware of it. If such behaviour is going to be challenged by an organisation, it will ultimately be the HR department's responsibility to identify the subtle interpersonal interactions that distinguish a bully from an effective, focused manager.

But how can HR teams detect bullying, especially when deadlines are tight and people are already under stress? Here are six warning signs to look out for.

1 Low morale

HR's close observation of individuals and teams can help it to ask questions about what might be occurring. Low morale and a lack of motivation can be key signs that people feel miserable and unhappy at work, which can often be a result of a bullying manager or a bullying team member. This may not necessarily point to bullying, but it is a potential cause that should be explored.

2 Poor performance

Bullying is often related to performance. The victims may exhibit either a steady decline or a sudden drop in the quality of their work. People may offer myriad other reasons for this, but a negative relationship with a bully in the workplace will affect performance in some way. In addition, bullying changes the way in which staff deal with customers and deliver their services. Being bullied will decrease the level of pride we have in our work, so there may be an increase in the number of external complaints about people who are being bullied.

3 Absenteeism

Teams with a bullying leader often go absent from work, mainly because being bullied is highly traumatic and victims are likely to experience high levels of physical and psychological stress. Under a bullying manager the workplace is a toxic place to be, so absenteeism is a way of avoiding the perpetrator.

4 Intra-team conflict

A bullying manager sets the tone of communication in their team. Individuals led by an unchallenged bully will learn that such behaviour is acceptable in the organisation. HR should look out for intra-team conflicts, rivalries and hostilities, as bullied members take out their frustrations on each other.

5 High staff turnover

Staff who are being bullied or who observe unchallenged bullying may eventually vote with their feet. Persistent criticism, unrealistic expectations, unpredictable punishments and generally unpleasant behaviour will cause people to leave in numbers. If teams have had a high turnover of staff over a number of years, it is worth observing the behaviour of the people who remain.

6 Aggressive behaviour

Occasionally, when a perpetrator loses control, their behaviour is easy to spot - eg, blaming others publicly, shouting, swearing, name-calling, threats and insults. If this does occur, then the bullying has come to a head and can be easily challenged with supporting evidence. The trick, of course, is to protect people before the situation gets this far.

Key points

- Bullies are likely to have poor relationships with colleagues.
- Watch out for teams with high staff turnover.
- Bullying managers tend to make impulsive, random decisions and exhibit a need to be in control and micro-manage.
- The victims of bullying can display a decline in performance and an increase in absenteeism.