Accusations of workplace bullying are on the increase and GPs need to take such matters very seriously.
Bullying might be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power by means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.
Bullying differs from harassment and discrimination in that it is rarely based on gender, race, religion or disability, but on the alleged incompetence of the bullied person.
Examples of this sort of behaviour include: ridiculing or demeaning someone and picking on them or setting them up to fail; overbearing supervision or other misuse of power or position; making threats or comments about job security without foundation; deliberately undermining a competent worker by overloading and constant criticism; and preventing progress by intentionally blocking promotion or training opportunities.
Bullying is unacceptable on moral grounds but might also cause difficulties for an organisation. It can result in poor morale and poor employee relations; loss of respect for managers and supervisors; poor performance; lost productivity; absence and resignations; and damage to the organisation's reputation.
Bullying does not necessarily happen face to face. It might be by written communications, email or text messages, in phone conversations or gossip, in actions (such as treating people differently), or in weblogs.
When a victim of bullying first comes forward you have an opportunity to deal with the situation. However, in many cases people simply put up with bullying on the assumption that it is normal behaviour within the organisation, or because of anxiety that they will be considered weak if they admit they are intimidated by such actions. They might also fear retribution.
In many cases the victim's manager is the aggressor so the usual process for handling concerns or grievances (where the member of staff raises the matter with his/her manager) is not appropriate.
Hold a private discussion with the victim and obtain all the facts. It might be that you can negotiate an informal resolution by discussion with the sufferer and alleged aggressor. In some cases the aggressor might not be aware that his/her actions are causing distress.
If an informal resolution to the problem cannot be accomplished, ask the victim to raise a formal grievance.
Investigations and hearings should be carried out, and if appropriate, the disciplinary procedure invoked to deal with the aggressor.
Taking formal action
If the situation appears to involve serious misconduct, it might be prudent to separate the parties, so a short period of suspension (with pay) of the alleged aggressor might need to be considered.
Any such suspension should not be interpreted as an indication of guilt, merely as providing the opportunity for the investigation to continue unhindered.
If, after proper investigation, the bullying is found to amount to gross misconduct, dismissal might be needed. Remember to follow your formal disciplinary and dismissal procedures, which must conform to, or exceed, the statutory procedures.
In order to minimise the risk of future bullying and to provide a framework for handling alleged cases, you would be well advised to introduce a policy on bullying. This policy should identify what bullying means, state that any form of bullying is unacceptable, define what steps employees should take if they feel that they are being bullied, and spell out the penalties for offenders.
- Ray Wilcox is a partner at First Practice Management
- The Andrea Adams Trust works to reduce the incidences of bullying in the workplace and provides advice and support through a national helpline. It also provides training, publications and factsheets. Hova House, 1 Hova Villas, Hove, East Sussex BN3 3DH. www.andreaadamstrust.org Helpline: (01273) 704900 (Mon-Fri 10am-4pm)