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Recognising when ‘banter’ becomes bullying in the workplace

Recognising when ‘banter’ becomes bullying in the workplace

31 January 2019

Some people are naturally brash, or assertive, while others are introvert and sensitive. So, it’s natural for personalities to clash sometimes – what humours one employee may hurt another. But when does ‘banter’ become ‘bullying’? What one person classifies as ‘unacceptable behaviour’ may differ to their colleague, so it’s crucial that HRs are clear, so they have solid evidence to act upon if needed.

The stats – it’s serious

Workplace bullying is an epidemic, estimated to cost the UK £18 billion a year. A survey by the TUC revealed that nearly a third of people have been bullied at work, with women experiencing it more than men. The typical age being 40-59, where 34% of employees are affected. While our own research reveals that over half (51%) of managers recognise bullying as a ‘very important’ issue to address, spotting tense relationships and hostile behaviour isn’t easy – especially if manipulative employees are acting covertly, or suffering employees aren’t seeking help.

What is bullying?

Acas defines workplace bullying as “offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the person being bullied”. Bullying is a deliberate, harmful and repetitive act rooted in a power imbalance. Behaviour can include name-calling, purposely being ignored or excluded, constant criticism and rumour-spreading. This can escalate to aggressive behaviours like shouting, intimidation and even of a threatening nature.

Senior staff shouldn’t be discounted here. Alarmingly, Acas reveals that, in nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases, bullying is inflicted by a manager. This can involve abusing a position of power to undermine employees, like making threats about job security, overloading workload or blocking progress.

Knowing the difference

Feeling like the butt of a joke, being excluded or being on the receiving end of a colleague’s anger can upset an employee. But if an incident takes place in isolation, it’s not necessarily classed as ‘bullying’. To be bullied is to repeatedly suffer at the hands of someone wanting power or control.

In friendships or a one-off scenario, two people can make fun of one another in a genuinely good-natured way. However, if you see (or hear of) a situation where one person is teasing another repetitively, this could be considered bullying – especially if the targeted employee looks hurt or isn’t reacting. Equally, a heated conversation may escalate into aggression when personalities clash. In this situation, there may be an ‘aggressor’ and a ‘victim’. If the hostile behaviour is a one-off and doesn’t continue, this suggests an inability to manage anger or personal emotions.

Handling bullying

Feeling bullied can be detrimental to mental health, lowering self-esteem, morale and productivity. Bullying can induce stress and, if undisclosed, escalate into more serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Here’s how to recognise and handle bullying in your workforce:

1. Keep an eye on your team. What’s morale like? Are any employees acting out of character, perhaps withdrawn and downbeat? Equally, are there any impulsive characters? It’s also important to look after new-starters too, so they don’t feel alienated

2. Check in with line managers. Employees may not come directly to HR unless they’re worried about situations becoming political. When possible, check in with employees every so often. A good working relationship will increase the likelihood of them approaching you with concerns

3. Implement a workplace bullying / harassment policy and review this accordingly

4. Educate employees on the company policy and enforce it, to inform people about what bullying is and mitigate against bullying behaviour, while also giving those who feel bullied a chance to speak up

5. Listen to employees who report they’re being bullied and ask for examples; what happened? When? Is this the first time, or how often does this happen?

6. Investigate grievances to determine if bullying allegations are legitimate

7. Only take action and discipline the accused if you’re absolutely certain, in line with your policies and procedures. Seek professional support through Acas or CIPD if needed.

8. Getting involved in employee conflict can be uncomfortable. However, if you do not manage these issues, the cost to your business can be high. Work should be a safe place that has a positive influence on your team. Your employees have every right to work in a job they can enjoy and thrive in, so protect them with a zero-tolerance approach to bullying.

If you’re struggling with bullying in the workplace, you can turn to Ben. Their free confidential helpline (08081 311 333) and online chat are open Monday-Friday, 8am-8pm.

About Ben

Ben exists to provide support for life to those who work in the automotive industry and their families. If you would like to find out more about how Ben can help you, visit www.ben.org.uk.