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Farrer & Co | Bullying in universities – time for action: what needs to happen?

Hopefully you were convinced (if you needed any convincing) by our last article  that it is worth taking bullying in the workplace seriously, whether or not it might be connected to a protected characteristic. The next question is what to do about it.

For a start, and fairly obviously, all universities should have a formal anti-harassment and bullying policy in place, as well as a whistleblowing policy. A policy needs to cover things like:

  • a statement of commitment from senior management;
  • a clear statement that such behaviour will not be tolerated;
  • a non-exhaustive list of examples of unacceptable behaviour;
  • make it clear that the policy may extend outside of the office or working hours, for example, to social events or email / social media etc;
  • the steps to be taken to prevent bullying and the procedure to investigate allegations and
  • protection from victimisation or detriment

Most universities will have such policies in place already. Bear in mind however, that there is no point in having these kind of procedures if they are not communicated to staff, or if staff aren't trained on them or don't know how to implement them.

Something more meaningful is required to tackle bullying effectively in the workplace, and this is what the rest of this article aims to explore:

1. Be aware of where and when bullying thrives

However it is labelled and whatever it looks like, harassment and bullying of people in the workplace often relates to the abuse of a position of power. In other words, bullying cannot take place unless the bully has the power to do so.

Often, the bully will be a person who is in an actual position of power: they may be senior to the victim. At other times it could be perceived power: they may be in a position of strength due to their perceived status amongst work colleagues or because of the significance of the work they do. However it arises, the bully seeks to exploit perceived differences between themselves and the person they bully.

The reality is that many victims may blame themselves or be too scared to report the behaviour. Universities who are serious about tackling bullying should therefore be proactive and reflect on the possible positions in their organisations which might provide greatest opportunity for someone to exert power over others. Similarly, are there particular locations or working practices (eg long working hours / lone working etc) which might facilitate the opportunity for bullying?

Every university will have different areas of weakness. The important thing is to know your vulnerabilities and reduce opportunities for abuse of those.

2. The importance of workplace culture

Though bullying may occur for many reasons and anyone may become a target, it is likely to flourish:

  • where an aggressive and/or authoritarian style of management is the norm;
  • where individuals in positions of power are hard to challenge;
  • in organisations enforcing restructuring and redundancies;
  • where there are excessive demands on employees to meet targets or deadlines;
  • where there is no code of acceptable behaviour or procedure for resolving disputes, or where such a code if it exists is not enforced;
  • where the possibility of favour or advancement exists in return for cooperation;
  • where the fear of retribution exists for raising the alarm and
  • where people have little faith in the ability of senior leaders to tackle issues (eg they may have failed to do so, or mishandled things in the past).

The net result is an organisation where rules can be broken and rule breakers are not challenged, and where concerns are not raised so conduct remains unchecked and underground.

All of this suggests that it is not just the bully who is responsible for his or her behaviour (and its effects), but also the university which allows that conduct to exist.

Embedding a good culture takes positive and courageous leadership where professional standards are maintained, "cultural slippage" is challenged, and appropriate action is taken when boundaries have been transgressed.

Universities (or individual Colleges, faculties or departments) where bullying does happen (even if at a low level), should acknowledge that bullying as an organisational issue, and not just isolated individual acts of behaviour. Doing so encourages organisations to identify and tackle the underlying cause.

3. Encourage a "speak out" culture

Research shows that active bystander invention can be an important and effective way of stopping or discouraging inappropriate behaviour. However, many of us have been brought up being told "not to tell tales" or be a "snitch"; instinctively we dislike confrontation and would prefer to avoid conflict where we can – so, more often than not, we fall into the role of 'helpless bystander'.

Yet, in order to achieve effective cultural change within a workplace, it is important for all staff to understand and accept that it is everyone's responsibility to speak out about, and where appropriate challenge, poor practice and behaviour

One way of working towards this is to ensure that staff know how to raise concerns and report issues and feel confident in doing so. They should be assured that what they say will be taken and dealt with seriously, and that they will not suffer a detriment as a consequence of reporting a concern. Many organisations are appointing 'speak up champions' to encourage people to come forward and to ensure that they are listened to.

4. Take prompt and appropriate action

If staff are speaking up, it is of vital importance that organisations listen to what they are saying. Where staff do not have confidence in the process, this can act as a major detriment to the reporting of issues: if people do not feel they are being heard, or if organisations only pay lip service to what is being said, the risk is that they will stop talking. A good culture therefore requires management to be prepared to act appropriately in responding to staff who raise concerns (and additional training may be required to help them do that). All complaints should be listened to, and appropriate investigation / action taken.

Conclusion

When we think of bullying, it is often tempting to think of it as a childhood phenomenon, confined to the playground. Sadly, however, all too often such behaviour extends to the workplace. It is not only children who can remarkably be cruel; many people's lives are marred by the unacceptable or unwelcome behaviour of others, which can cause harm not just to the recipient, but also to those around them and to those who employ them.

In a lot of cases, universities' (understandable) approach to bullying is to tackle it once the issue has arisen. While this is certainly part of the story, just as important is trying to prevent harm from occurring in the first place. Encouraging an open culture, where everyone is expected to 'walk the talk' and feels able to speak out about concerns will hopefully help create safer organisations for people to work in and interact with.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, December 2018

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