Culture of silence enables bullying

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We all hoped to leave bullying behind when we left the schoolyard, but the reality is that workplace bullying is alarmingly common. Even more insidious is the culture that stops people from complaining.

A new study by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) revealed its helpline has received around 20,000 calls related to bullying and harassment over the past year with some callers reporting that workplace bullying caused them to self-harm or consider suicide.

“Callers to our helpline have experienced some horrific incidents around bullying that have included humiliation, ostracism, verbal and physical abuse,” said Sir Brendan Barber, chair of Acas. “But managers sometimes dismiss accusations around bullying as simply personality or management style clashes whilst others may recognise the problem but lack the confidence or skills to deal with it.

Economically, the impact is huge. “Businesses should be taking workplace bullying very seriously as the annual economic impact of bullying-related absences, staff turnover and lost productivity is estimated to be almost £18 billion,” said Barber.

Acas’s report is supported by CABA’s services director Kelly Feehan: “The longer the exposure to this negative behaviour is, the higher the likelihood that the employee’s productivity will drop, their behaviour will become introverted and their motivation will deteriorate. These feelings may then begin to impact on their personal time and further compromise their mental health, making them more anxious about going to work.”

It’s not just mental, but there are some tangible, physical consequences to workplace bullying. “Employees who are subject to negative behaviour in the workplace can begin to experience isolation and ill mental health, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression and trouble sleeping”.

Another worry is what Acas calls “the barriers to people making complaints”, indicative of a broader, problematic workplace culture. Acas’s report comes amid growing talk of accountancy’s unspoken mental health problem and the suppression of uncomfortable topics like bullying and mental health within the profession.

In an excellent article for Going Concern detailing her anxiety disorder, accountant Leona May wrote, “Unfortunately for [me], and for others who struggle with mental illness, we work in an accounting culture that stigmatizes and perpetuates mental illness.” This culture is vividly illustrated in Acas’s research.

Any accountant who has worked the dark depths of January can testify to the stress that the profession can bring. As much as it is ingrained in the profession and will never be eliminated, there’s a danger in trivialising it. Britons pride themselves on their stiff upper lip. The problem is, as Vice UK put it succinctly, “The stiff upper lip is killing [us]”.

It can be a tremendously admirable trait, but becomes problematic when victims of bullying feel cowed into silence or when an accountant quietly labours under the physical and mental issues caused by stress.

Leadership by the senior management and employers is vital, said CABA’s Feehan. “Bullying can be very difficult to spot, not least because many employees feel ashamed to speak up about being bullied, as they may fear that others merely see it as ‘banter’ or that they’re taking the comments too personally.”

According to Feehan, these are some of the easy steps office leadership can take:

Encourage on open door policy: “Managers should have regular catch ups with employees and encourage HR to check in with employees so that if there is a change in behaviour, there are people on hand to spot the changes and open up a dialogue about what is affecting them.”

Keep a record: “Take note of any personnel grievances, and if you see a pattern emerge around one employee, speak to them about their behaviour. It may be that you could offer them training to improve their people or communication skills or if more serious, a disciplinary process may need to be opened against them.”

Have a formal procedure: “Bullying can have a negative and sustaining effect on employees and needs to be dealt with quickly and firmly. Managers may find dealing with the process difficult, so make sure all managers are trained on how to confidently deal with any complaints and if this happens more than once, the same procedure is followed each time, to ensure the process is fair to all.”

Another option is an employee counselling service. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are employee benefit programmes. They aren’t free, generally costing a yearly subscription. A delegate at the recent UK200 group conference told AccountingWEB they pay £600 a year for their service.

About Francois Badenhorst

Francois

I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter. 

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