Mean Girls (and Boys): Why bullying isn’t just a playground issue

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Kathryn Nawrockyi, Opportunity Now Director calls for immediate action on workplace bullying.

This week (17-21 November) is Anti-Bullying Week, and this year’s theme is ‘let’s stop bullying for all’. It’s a stark reminder that bullying is still prevalent, and often in places where you don’t expect it to be. We often think of bullying as something that stops once we leave school –anyone remember Mean Girls? However, for many women, it isn’t something that has been left in the playground, but rather an insidious part of their daily working lives.

This week also marks a year since we launched Project 28-40, the UK’s biggest ever survey of women’s workplace experiences. The most shocking statistics to come out of our 25,000 responses were those on bullying and harassment, with 52 per cent of women reporting they’d been bullied or harassed at work in the previous three years. In some sectors it was even higher, such as media and particularly traditionally male-dominated areas such as construction and uniformed & armed services, where sexual harassment is also prevalent. Women with disabilities, Black African and Caribbean women, and lesbian, gay and bisexual women were also more likely to experience bullying.

Changing organisational cultures to prevent bullying and harassment will not be easy. But if we’re going to create workplaces where everyone – men and women, from all backgrounds and of all ages – feel that they can do their job without fear of being treated badly, then we must all work together to tackle it.

Whilst women reported some truly horrifying experiences, the vast majority of the stories we heard from survey respondents and focus group participants highlighted the “low level” bullying going on, from catcalls while walking across the floor to offensive material being displayed in communal areas. Many women also said that this behaviour was normalised within their industry or explained away as ‘banter’, and that they feared being victimised if they spoke out against it. Others talked about managers and leaders ‘closing ranks’ to protect perpetrators, especially when they were at senior levels or making money for the organisation.

It’s clear that bullying and harassment affects women – and men – of all ages, from all backgrounds and at all levels, and it’s simply not acceptable in the 21st century workplace. So isn’t it time that senior leaders stepped up and said ‘This must stop. Now.’?

If we’re going to end these bullying cultures for good, then the change needs to be led from the top. Senior leaders must make it clear to all staff that there is zero tolerance for bad behaviour and end the culture of fear by making it easier for victims to report bullying and harassment and be confident that their complaints will be taken seriously. They may also want to consider putting more informal reporting mechanisms in place, with the aim of encouraging people who are being bullied to speak out without the pressure of going through a formal process, and providing in-depth training for teams and individuals identified as repeat offenders.

But it isn’t enough for senior leaders to push these messages if they are not backed by managers further down the organisation. Earlier this month we published our report ‘Inclusive Leadership: culture change for business success’, which set out how organisations can develop inclusive leadership to get the best out of all their people and succeed in a complex and diverse business world. By understanding how different people work and what motivates them, managers can respond to the challenges of diverse teams and are able to meet their team members’ needs – including addressing their concerns about bullying.

Changing organisational cultures to prevent bullying and harassment will not be easy. But if we’re going to create workplaces where everyone – men and women, from all backgrounds and of all ages – feel that they can do their job without fear of being treated badly, then we must all work together to tackle it. The business world is becoming increasingly diverse and employers cannot risk potentially excluding or even losing talent because of bad behaviour. But it’s only once we’ve eliminated these attitudes that we will create truly fair and inclusive workplaces; we can’t just wait for the dinosaurs to go extinct.