Five powerful ways to tackle bullying in the workplace

Posted by
Stylist Team
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites
illustration woman at work

According to a new report, a quarter of employees think their company overlooks bullying and harassment complaints. But what can you do if you’re facing workplace bullying?

A report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has revealed 24% of employees feel issues like bullying and harassment in the workplace are swept under the rug or ignored. While 15% of employees have experienced bullying in the last three years, with the most common forms including, “being undermined or humiliated” (55% of women, 50% of men), “persistent unwarranted criticism” and “unwanted personal remarks” more than half of them did not report it.

The CIPD (the professional body for HR and people development) highlighted line management and training as key in causing and preventing harassment and bullying in the workplace. Lack of faith and confidence in how reports will be handled plays a large part in the reluctance to report and the CIPD has urged firms to train managers to be able to handle conflicts better.

Only two fifths (40%) of line managers reported having had any people management training and a third of employers (34%) said managers lacking confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour was one of the biggest barriers to successful conflict management.

 A similar study by employment law specialists Slater and Gordon found  that six in 10 people have witnessed bullying at work or suffered from it themselves, again less than half (48%) did anything about it. There are lots of reasons why people don’t want to report bullying or harassment at work. You may be afraid of being seen to be overreacting, you may not want to draw attention to yourself or heighten conflict, you may not even know where to start or how to approach the situation.

“It can take a lot of courage for someone to speak up about inappropriate behaviour at work, but there are very disappointing results on the ability of organisations to deal compassionately and effectively with complaints,” the CIPD said.

“Many people felt their organisation didn’t act swiftly or fairly to resolve the complaint, or that they were even being blamed for the situation.”

Bullying and harassment at work
On a positive note, confidence in reporting sexual harassment has improved.

The report did however find that 33% of employees felt more confident reporting sexual harassment than they did two years ago, it’s a glimmer of hope that things can improve and that #MeToo has made an impact.

While it’s up to organisations to step up and fix their flawed systems, you may not have time to wait for that. So what do you do if you’re facing bullying and harassment at work? What steps can you take to get through a process you’re less than confident in?

With over 16 years’ experience working for some of the UK’s top employment law firms, HR expert Laura Milne is well-versed in the language of workplace bullying, at the helm of Lime HR

“We’ve all been there – chances are if you’ve ever had a job then you’ve experienced someone along the way who has treated unfairly. Someone who has tried to intimidate, harass or bully you,” Laura says.

“Sadly it’s key to career success and, of course, general emotional peace of mind, to learn the skills of how to manage such an experience in a way that’s healthy and productive.”

Here she speaks to Stylist about the most effective ways of tackling office bullying – before it gets the better of you:

1. Find out if the treatment you’re receiving constitutes bullying

woman stressed about texts
"We need to talk" can be the most stressful text to receive

“First things first – establish what IS bullying? Sometimes the way someone behaves towards us might seem a little insidious. But we might be unsure if a particular comment or behaviour constitutes harassment or bullying.

In essence, however, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration service(ACAS), provides the guidelines by which all UK employees and employers should abide. ACAS tells us that we all have the right to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect. If someone you work with treats you in a way that is offensive, intimidating, insulting, or, they abuse their position of power over you or humiliate you then these are all examples of bullying.”

2. Have an informal chat to begin with

WOrkplace bullying illustration chat
It may be awkward but try having an informal chat about the behaviours.

“Easier said than done perhaps, but if someone treats you in a way that damages your self-esteem then it’s useful to have an informal, non-confrontational discussion in a neutral location. Try saying something like this:

‘When you say [blah] / do [blah] it makes me feel uncomfortable, I feel like I am being attacked.’

Afterwards, it’s important to document the discussion by email and keep a copy somewhere safe and confidential.

This might be a tricky thing to do but it’s true that most bullies back down when confronted in a calm and self-assured manner.”

3. Avoid appeasing the bully

work meeting illustration
You can calmly make it clear certain comments aren’t acceptable.

“Never try to appease the mood of a bully by playing into their behaviour.

Let the bully know by your behaviour that you will not accept their treatment of you. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting aggressive or confrontational. Be calm and self-assured.

I once had a boss who would make inappropriate comments about my physical appearance. Every time he made such a comment I would reply simply and calmly (sometimes not even looking up from my work); ‘Not appropriate Paul, not appropriate.’”

4. Paper trail

Can 'manifestation' to help you achieve your dreams?

“This one is key! Document – document – document…

Every inappropriate or aggressively toned email should be kept.

Every inappropriate conversation should be typed up in a notebook, with witnesses and names documented, and the date and time of the conversation annotated.

Same goes for the work you do well – keep that glowing testimonial from the client. Keep copies and details of accounts and sales targets met. You never know when you may need to refer to them to protect yourself.”

5. The legal route

work place bullying legal action
Legal action may seem overwhelming but your staff handbook would be a good place to start.

“The first stop on a legal route is to raise a written grievance. Check your Staff Handbook or the ACAS website for further guidance but write a clear and concise diary of events of what happened and when.

Take the grievance to your HR department – an employer should investigate and provide a written decision within 28 days.

If all else fails, then a claim should be brought to an employment tribunal within three months of the date of the first act.”

In the Slater and Gordon  study more than a quarter witnessed colleagues being deliberately humiliated by a bully while one in ten had heard racist insults. One in six saw a co-worker subjected to inappropriate sexual remarks. Childish pranks were seen by 24% of those surveyed while one in 15 saw their colleague’s work being sabotaged. 

One in 20 people said they had witnessed physical violence between workmates. 

The bullying was disguised as ‘workplace banter’ in 56% of cases while 68% said the behaviour was ‘subtle’, such as leaving a colleague out of work drinks, lunches and meetings. 

Over half (52%) said they did nothing to stop the bullying with a third admitting they felt too awkward to say anything. A quarter thought bullying was just part of the culture of where they worked. 

As many as 20% said they feared becoming the target of the bully themselves if they spoke out and one in ten thought they could lose their job if they complained. A quarter said they didn’t think it was their responsibility to do anything about it.

“A bully’s behaviour is never truly about you,” says Laura, “Never be a victim and never let another’s opinion of you define who you are. Only you can define who you are.” 

For more info on what constitutes bullying in the workplace and what you can do to tackle it, check out

Images: Getty

Sign up for the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you don't miss out on the conversation.

By entering my email I agree to Stylist’s Privacy Policy


Share this article


Stylist Team

Recommended by Stylist Team


Five powerful ways to tackle bullying in the workplace

From creating a paper trail to legal action.

Posted by
Stylist Team

'I’m being discriminated against at work and my boss doesn’t care'

This week's Ask A Feminist dilemma

Posted by
Stylist Team

Emma Watson launches free advice line to help women dealing with workplace sexual harassment

Research suggests that as many as one in two women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Posted by
Lauren Geall
Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: "We live in a culture of bullying"

Lucy Mangan is... outspoken

Posted by
Stylist Team