What constitutes workplace bullying? The most likely things that come to mind are threatening, abusive or patronising behaviours at work. Increasingly, these behaviours are reinforced by email or online work forums, and may even continue outside of work on social media sites.
This all constitutes workplace bullying, but what is less spoken of is the workplace bullying which involves being ignored. No comments, no emails, no response. In national anti-bullying week, it is time to recognise the hidden aspects of workplace bullying.
While individual experiences of conflict at work will vary in terms of severity, at Acas we know that many incidents start in the same way – through a build-up of small things. Sometimes these minor incidents get resolved by themselves, but at other times, it can be the start of something more serious - bullying.
In my case, it was a minor disagreement with an ex-colleague over turning off an air conditioning unit that led to a difficult working environment for an uncomfortable eight months.
What started as out as a misunderstanding, escalated to an ex-colleague not responding to my questions, not being invited to after-work drinks and not responding to my work emails. Even as I write this now, it seems absurd that such a horrible atmosphere was allowed to fester for so long.
Each of these so called ‘minor’ incidents are like grains of sand passing through an hourglass timer – if left unresolved they become a heap of minor incidents amounting to a much bigger and a more serious problem to deal with.
So how do we stop the timer running on workplace bullying?
New Acas research on ‘Strategies for Effectively Managing Emails at Work’, provides a timely window into how the way we communicate with each other can lead to a culture of stress and low trust: in short, the perfect breeding ground for poor workplace behaviours.
Previous Acas research on managing conflict shows that early intervention is the key to resolving problems – the old adage of ‘nipping problems in the bud’ is very apt here.
Looking back at my experience which started with a disagreement over an air conditioning unit, more could have been done to resolve things at an earlier stage. The temperature was rising (in the office) and in terms of our workloads. I realise now that my colleague didn’t mean for it to get out of hand (nor did I) and a breakdown in communication did not help.
The intervention of a third person at an earlier stage could have helped to cool down the situation in more ways than one. It’s because of instances like this that Acas is such a strong advocate of mediation.
Stopping the timer on workplace bullying is important. But this means taking proactive steps such as communicating with each other at any given opportunity, supporting line managers and making use of informal routes to ease tensions at work.
This week Acas is reminding workplaces up and down the country to understand how to prevent and tackle all aspects of workplace bullying.
About Rachel Pinto
I'm Rachel and I work on policy research at Acas. We aim to promote good employment relations, and help employers and employees in navigating work issues.