Zero tolerance: HR strategies against workplace bullying

19 min read  |   30 April, 2024   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An animated image shows a woman sitting on the floor with her head in her hands, in distress. An abstract line surrounds her, representing angst. A large disembodied hand appears from the top right, pointing at her, suggesting bullying & aggression.

Workplace bullying costs UK businesses an astonishing £18 billion per year, with 29% of people reporting experiencing it.


And a massive third of UK workers have experienced bullying disguised as banter, according to research.

We know that not all instances of bullying are obvious – some types are quieter, more insidious and harder to detect – especially for HR.


In this blog, we spoke to Vicky Smith; Chartered CIPD Fellow, founder & owner of Cinnamon HR Consultancy and Gold Breathe Partner.


Vicky shares her expertise & anonymised client examples of bullying & harassment cases she’s dealt with, along with the resolutions – to help HR teams prevent problems escalating before it’s too late.


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What is the definition of bullying at work?

Technically, there’s no legal definition of bullying under UK law (yet – the Bullying and respect at work Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons last year).

ACAS defines bullying as: unwanted behaviour from a person or group that’s either offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting, or an abuse or misuse of power that undermines, humiliates, or causes physical or emotional harm to someone.’

What is harassment?

Harassment is defined under the Equality Act 2010 as: “unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual.”

And the costs of workplace bullying & harassment are huge – on personal & professional levels, but also for your organisation as a whole when you consider the impact on your brand reputation.



Examples of bullying in the workplace


Harassment or bullying in the workplace can manifest in a range of different ways. Most people will be familiar with obvious examples of unacceptable behaviour, such as rudeness, discriminatory behaviour or language, inappropriate or offensive language, or displays of aggression such as shouting.


The Harvard Business Review details specific, overt types of bullying, including humiliation, or silencing someone in front of other people.


In Vicky Smith of Cinnamon HR’s experience, the most common bullying cases she’s witnessed in small businesses are usually down to personality clashes.


“More than 80% of the bullying cases I see are a result of personality clashes. A comment or banter to one person could really upset someone else - and be interpreted entirely differently.”



What are less obvious examples of bullying?


Bullying isn’t always apparent, or even visible to many others – especially at work.

Less obvious sources of workplace conflict can include things like not replying to emails, taking credit for others’ work, not listening or valuing other people’s views, talking over people and differences in working styles, or personality clashes. But covert bullying includes gaslighting, withholding information and subtle blaming. Covert actions can be harder to pinpoint (and are less likely to be witnessed).


Workplace incivility is defined by the CIPD as “low-intensity deviant behaviour with ambiguous intent to harm, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect. Uncivil behaviours are rude and discourteous, displaying a lack of regard for others.” 

The CIPD notes that often, it’s these more subtle behaviours that lead to workplace disputes over time, if they’re not dealt with. This is why it’s crucial for HR to tackle issues sooner rather than later, when morale isn’t recoverable and mental health suffers.   


Undermining the severity of nuanced and insidious behaviours is a mistake that lots of employees make – even when it’s happening to them.


“People don’t want to rock the boat [by reporting bullying behaviour],” Vicky Smith of Cinnamon HR advises. “Especially in a small business, as there’s often nowhere to hide. In most instances, teams are small, offices can be small – there might only be a few people working in one office all day, Monday-Friday.


We often spend more time at work with our colleagues than we do with our own families. This fear of upsetting dynamics in small businesses is a common theme that I’ve witnessed over the years.”

The Harvard Business Review notes that “the relatively minor acts of workplace incivility [are] even more insidious than overt bullying, because they are less obvious and easier to overlook – yet they add up, eroding engagement and morale.”




HR case examples of workplace bullying & harassment


Vicky Smith of Cinnamon HR shares some anonymised client examples of cases where she’s helped small businesses manage bullying & harassment.


The first is a clear example of a type of less obvious bullying.


Example 1 – a case of ‘under the radar’ bullying over a prolonged period


“We were brought in to investigate a bullying claim in a small charity, where a small team of women worked together in close quarters for years,” Vicky recalls.


“After investigating, it transpired that one woman had been undermining another employee wherever possible, in a subtle way, for around 5 years. The employee who brought the claim had been keeping evidence of these instances, but had never shared them with the employer, until one event. The employee had made a mistake relating to health and safety, so something fairly serious, but the other lady had emailed the whole team, to highlight the problem.”

The resolution


“After investigating and speaking to all relevant parties, we discovered that the employee had actually had to delve deeply to discover the mistake the other employee had made. Given that this shouldn’t have been her concern and she’d gone out of her way to find this mistake, this resulted in a formal conversation.


In this instance, the victimising behaviour wasn’t due to a protected characteristic, but an evident personality clash, so as HR we reminded the offending employee that this wasn’t her responsibility to investigate – and could have easily been addressed individually with the person, rather than copying in the whole team.


Sometimes the very process of having an external HR consultancy come in and investigate, lay our expectations, is enough for people to realise how seriously their behaviour has affected someone.


Example 2 – a case of sexual harassment disguised as ‘banter’

Vicky notes another case where interpretations of what appropriate workplace behaviour was varied wildly.

“In a case of different interpretations of what’s appropriate and what isn’t (along with likely differing generational values), Cinnamon HR were brought in to review a claim of sexual harassment. The employee that the claim involved was an older man, who had repeatedly made ‘jokes’ to a younger, female employee about what she was wearing, and consistently made inappropriate comments with a strong sexual connotation.

As a result, the employee was made to feel very uncomfortable, to the point where they didn’t feel safe to be alone with that person in the office. The employee then raised a formal grievance.” 

The resolution

After the investigation, it was clear that this behaviour was inappropriate and highly offensive. The result of this was a formal HR conversation with the offending employee, joined by the Managing Director of the business.

It was made clear to the employee that whilst they felt this was ‘banter’ and should be taken in a humorous manner, this wasn’t acceptable workplace conduct and that they should absolutely refrain from this type of comment or ‘joke’ in future. The employee didn’t fully understand the gravity of the situation, and said in that case, he wouldn’t speak to or look at the employee again. I explained that although he didn’t accept that the behaviour that caused this grievance was inappropriate; it had clearly been identified as being so.

It was stated that the company’s expectation was that going forward, he would act in an appropriate manner and stay away from making sexualised comments or mention appearance. It was relayed that this had been noted on his HR file, and that we didn’t expect to speak to him about this issue again. It was also clearly stated that should this happen again, the implications would be more serious and could result in disciplinary action.”

The physical costs of all types of bullying can result in physical illness, burnout and even disability. Not to mention the mental health implications of anxiety, depression, PTSD, insomnia, nightmares, loss of confidence and even suicidal ideation in extreme cases.


For HR teams, prevention is better than cure when dealing with these issues.



5 ways HR can protect against workplace conflict

Grievance procedures can be stressful (for everyone involved – including HR) and time-consuming. The CIPD advises, where possible, that informal ways of resolving conflict should be exhausted before considering other, formal avenues.


 1. Examine your culture as a whole – and look at leadership

Vicky advises HR looking to leaders when considering organisational culture, as we all know that this is where culture filters down from. People in leadership set the entire tone and precedent for your SME’s culture.

Vicky can vouch for this in her HR experience. Whatever the organisational leadership style is, people throughout the business will mimic that style without even realising. For example, if the person or people at the top conduct themselves with a bit of banter or swearing, or being over-familiar with each other, employees will naturally emulate that behaviour.”

So culture definitely does filter down from the top. To keep conflict and issues at bay, HR should bear in mind the leadership styles of those in senior positions throughout an SME – without ‘policing’ - but with a view to discuss any potential issues or poor examples of behaviour.


2. Give your SME the tools (and permission) to stand up to bullying

HR teams can empower employees in small businesses to call out behaviour that is offensive, intimidating, or even subtle aspects of bullying.

Ensuring you have a bullying and harassment policy in place that states the types of behaviours that won’t be tolerated and could even result in disciplinary action. We’d also suggest including some less obvious signs of bullying (detailed earlier) and the process that employees should follow if they feel they’re being victimised.

One example of where a business employed a zero-tolerance policy to offensive & uncivil behaviour was treating meetings like a sports game. They incorporated ‘yellow card warning signs’ into their day-to-day, with hand signals acting as warning signs that someone needs to be mindful of their phrasing, tone or intensity of comments and questions. This can escalate into a ‘red card’ which means someone’s been so repeatedly offensive after fair warning that they should be ‘ejected from the game.’


3. Explore avenues to resolve conflict informally, where possible

The CIPD encourages informal ways to resolve workplace conflict, including:

Taking action to resolve conflict early, being ready to facilitate & communicate between parties, taking time to speak to each team member individually and protecting employees from conflict situations as much as possible.

For example, if things get heated, it’s often a good idea to remove one employee from discussions temporarily until things calm down.


4. Ensure HR takes a holistic, people-first view

HR can ensure they’re championing the right type of behaviours in the workplace by

making sure they assess values & attitudes when promoting people managers.


The CIPD advises assessing ethical behaviour as well as skills when considering promotions, because of the potential impact on teams of promoting someone that might have the technical capabilities, but could cause potential issues in terms of employee relations.


By encouraging healthy, fair relationships at work and ensuring employees & managers feel confident to approach workplace incivility if it occurs, HR focuses on prevention of conflict, rather than cure.



5. Championing the benefits of mediation

Mediation can be a useful option to avoid grievance procedures. HR can play a role in facilitating open conversations and joint problem-solving, meaning people are more open to compromise. Mediation can encourage communication & empathy on all sides.


Vicky Smith of Cinnamon HR shared that all of her consultants are TCM Accredited Mediators. Offering bespoke mediation services has helped scores of teams address disputes right at the beginning, rather than following more traditional lengthy grievance procedures. It's a service that many organisations value as the qualified, professional mediators ensure impartiality. 



Safeguard your SME against bullying with a strong policy

Psychological safety, trust & an inclusive environment are paramount for small businesses to run happy, healthy businesses where employees thrive (and stay working for you).


Clear, detailed HR policies can provide clarity for employees around standards of behaviour and can protect small businesses from dealing with time-consuming formal grievance procedures (or costly tribunal claims).


Store your HR policies in Breathe’s secure document management software – with employee access from anywhere.


Vicky Smith is the founder & owner of Cinnamon HR Consultancy, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD & a Gold Breathe Partner.


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter as of February 2023, Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With a passion for guiding readers to solutions for their HR woes, she enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: From employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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