Q: A member of my team has come to me with an allegation of bullying about a colleague. I have never witnessed it, so I am unsure how to address the matter. I feel it is my responsibility to protect my staff, but I haven't any evidence. Have you any advice on how to deal with this sensitive issue?
A: Workplace bullying is a very real and common occurrence that can be incredible difficult to deal with. It is a legal minefield and can also be difficult for a manager to prove.
It can come in many forms, from a boss singling out an employee or a colleague playing repeated pranks to a peer choosing to ignore another individual's contribution to a project.
Bullying can be defined as "repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual's right to dignity at work".
In this ever-changing busy environment, managers can sometimes dismiss bullying accusations as personality or management-style clashes. Others may recognise the problem, but lack the confidence or skills to deal with it.
Bullying is not in any job description so, as a manager, you need to be vigilant and ready to deal with a situation where someone comes to you in confidence about possible bullying.
Bullying is likely to affect the employee's self-esteem, not to mention productivity and then they can also bring this home to their personal lives. Trying to pass bullying off as management style or as the victim's fault is unacceptable. As this person's manager need to ask several questions in order to delve further into the situation. These include:
Has there been a change within the organisation recently which has led to such behaviours?
Has there been a switch of supervisor or project manager to one with a different style of management?
Is there a policy in place around bullying? Is everyone aware of it?
Is there a need for training so managers and employees are all aware of what 'bullying' is?
Can you introduce subtle changes into the working environment that could defuse the situation?
If the issue continues and you gather proof around a specific incident, then you have no choice but to approach the alleged bullies and explain that what they are doing is not acceptable as per company guidelines.
If you find it difficult to approach the person, you can seek the assistance of another manager or a HR representative to approach the employees with you.
The perception of bullying can vary between individuals, making it important to consider all circumstances before reaching a conclusion. HR professionals are trained to do this sensitively.
Mediation might be suggested if the informal discussion does not resolve it for you. Each place of work should have its own policy that needs to be followed, but generally the formal phase will involve following certain steps, including notifying the accused in writing that an allegation of bullying has been made against them.
The accused will be afforded an opportunity to respond. At that stage, an independent person should review the complaint and decide the next step to investigate further.
This is likely to involve a meeting between the victim and the alleged perpetrators and could involve other workers as witnesses, which becomes uncomfortable for all involved.
If the complaint is upheld then the next steps of the formal disciplinary process must be followed. However, if the complaint is not upheld, the reality is that work continues as usual for all those involved, which could cause further issues.
It is important for those in charge to follow effective leadership practices to influence a positive culture, manage employee expectations and deal with conflict effectively.
This may be an area you can discuss with your own boss to ensure that the management team gets the leadership development needed to cultivate a happy and productive environment.
Michelle Murphy is director of Collins McNicholas, Recruitment & HR Services Group, which has offices in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Athlone and Limerick.
Sunday Indo Business