Bullying… or Performance Management

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More and more businesses are facing internal complaints from employees that they are being bullied and invariably, this gets managed through the grievance procedure and is investigated. 

In extreme cases, the employee who is being accused of bullying may be suspended whilst the investigation takes place.

However, it is quite conceivable that after investigation, the bullying complaint is not upheld and the employee’s perception of what constituted bullying was not the case. It is easy to raise a grievance and use the word bullying but often, the word is being used out of context and the treatment that the employee perceives as bullying is in fact a manifestation of the fact that they are being performance managed or held to account in terms of their output.

Assertive v aggressive

Years ago, managers were made aware of the distinction between being assertive or aggressive in their management style. An assertive style is where the manager states an opinion whilst being respectful of others but an aggressive style is where the opinions of others are disregarded. Some managers/leaders are assertive in their style but this doesn’t make them a bully whilst an aggressive style is more akin to the behaviour of a bully.

Newly appointed managers/leaders

Claims of bullying often arise in situations where a new manager/leader is appointed. The previous management style may have been quite relaxed without a great focus on accountability and a new manager arrives and wants to drive performance standards, increase efficiency and output and holds people to account through formal performance mechanisms such as achievement of objectives and personal improvement plans. Done correctly and consistently across the team, that is not unreasonable but if an employee is uncomfortable with this new environment, there is nothing to prevent them raising a bullying complaint.

Direct management style

Some managers/leaders have a direct style of management and use fewer words and don’t “dress things up”. Often the employee will take offence and may feel that their comments are upsetting, unfair or even offensive. A direct style of management is not necessarily bullying.

If a new manager/leader arrives and starts to introduce performance measures, question behaviour, challenges why they are spending so much time out of the office at meetings, queries their absence and why they work from home so often……and wants access to their calendar – it is easy for the person to claim they are being bullied but arguably, they are being performance managed and/or held to account.

The situation will be compounded if this new accountability is in sharp contrast to the previous management regime which was relaxed, didn’t challenge behaviour or let things go without addressing issues. There are also situations where some employees are protected by a manager and when the employee has a new line manager, that shield of protection disappears, they are exposed and they struggle to come to terms with being managed through formal measures.

Being somewhat flippant, when a new leader/CEO/MD goes into a new business with the brief to drive change and introduce a more accountable performance driven culture, their role will be very challenging and some would argue that being accused of bullying is an occupational hazard.

The word “bullying” is being used more than ever in the workplace and whilst it is defined for the purposes of legislation, an employee can easily allege bullying through perception or a lack of understanding and once the issues are thoroughly investigated, it is clear that bullying in the true sense hasn’t taken place.

Bullying and stress

In a number of situations, bullying gets tied in with stress because the employee struggles to cope with the newly accountable culture, becomes understandably anxious and fearful for their job and this leads to stress and it then transpires that the stress was caused by bullying.

To be absolutely clear…..bullying does take place in the workplace and there is no place for it and bullies should be dealt with through the disciplinary process but it is also too easy for an employee to perceive bullying is taking place when they are being held to account.

However, when an employee alleges bullying, the allegation must be taken seriously, investigated and a process followed for dealing with the complaint – this can be costly and time consuming but it has to be done.

But, also spare a thought for the employee who has been wrongly accused of being a bully – when, in fact, they were just managing performance but it was misunderstood.

AB HR Solutions offers HR support to businesses, if you want advice or support on any of the issues raised in this article, get in touch.

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