Q&A: Time to take the workplace bully to task

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Q: I have received reports that one of my employees has experienced bullying in the workplace. While I have not witnessed this personally, I want to ensure the situation is dealt with appropriately. Please could you advise on the correct protocols to follow?

A: It is fundamental that employers are aware of how to deal with allegations of bullying effectively in order to avoid negative consequences. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has recently published figures that show they have received 20,000 calls from employees who are experiencing bullying at work therefore it appears a prevalent current issue.

It may be possible for allegations of bullying to be resolved informally. You should approach the employee with a sympathetic ear and ask generally if everything is okay. If they are not forthcoming with information about the bullying, you can introduce it to the conversation by telling them that there are routes available through which any problems they have can be addressed, and that they should not suffer in silence. If they feel able, they maybe able to stop the bullying behaviour themselves by speaking directly to the individuals, or they may require assistance from other workplace personnel. Some individuals may be unaware that their behaviour is causing offence to others and once informed any ill behaviour may stop.

If the employee would like the situation to be dealt with through a more formal route, or the informal route has not been successful, or is not deemed appropriate, then more formal procedures should be implemented using the organisation’s grievance procedure or personal harassment procedure. This will include holding a formal meeting with the employee so that you can gain much more detailed information about the alleged bullying, including names, dates and any witnesses present.

You will then need to undertake a thorough investigation, including speaking to the alleged bully in an investigatory discussion. It is important to remember that investigations regarding bullying should take place both quickly and impartially. Any investigation must be objective and all factors should be considered that is, harassment being felt differently by different individuals. It is not considered a breach of confidence to interview an alleged bully and indeed many policies on bullying or personal harassment within organisations include this step specifically. It could not be a rounded or a full investigation if the alleged bully is not spoken to as part of the investigation.