Workplace Bullying Worst for Gay, Young and Disabled People

If you’ve got learning disabilities, chronic illness, are young or gay, you’re more likely to be the victim of workplace bullying, according to a four year long survey of 4,000 people conducted by the Universities of Plymouth and Cardiff. The survey was reported in People Management Magazine Online yesterday.

The figures are fairly startling, even though those most likely to be targeted aren’t that surprising.  Clearly behaviour learned in the playground runs deep.  The survey reported that 47% of UK workers faced unreasonable treatment, which included being subjected to an unreasonable workload, having their views ignored and “employers not following proper procedures”.

I’m slightly sceptical of the categories of bullying behaviour: unreasonable treatment is in the eye of the beholder and there is no one fixed standard for a “reasonable” workload, for instance. It’s easy to claim that you have too much work on, or to complain that a petty grievance that is ignored is an example of an employer turning a deaf ear. But there is no doubt that many workplace environments are getting more pressured and unpleasant. As redundancies bite, the remaining employees are being asked to do more – we get regular enquiries from employees suffering overload at work, or who are being bullied (which is often expressed in the form of “micro-management). The dividing line between trying to get an employee to improve their performance and bullying someone by setting unrealistic targets might not always be easy to see.

One in five workers reported being shouted at by their manager and, shockingly, violence at work is said to be more widespread than previously thought, with 5% of respondents admitting to having been assaulted at work by customers, managers and colleagues.  That equates to 1.25 million people nationally, apparently. Of that figure, 13% of assaults were caused by colleagues and managers.  The public sector is badly affected, as are businesses with more than 250 employees.

What is striking though and perhaps cause for some limited cheer in an otherwise depressing report, is that race appears not to be a trigger for bullying and harassment.  I would place money that that wouldn’t have been the case fifteen or twenty years ago. There now needs to be concerted action in the workplace to make bullying and harassment on grounds of disability and sexual orientation as unacceptable as racist abuse now is.

That in turn requires employers to take a robust line on the issue and not just to view having a diversity policy as a fig-leaf, another box ticked to keep the compliance guys quiet. Whether that will happen in a depressed economic environment where unemployment is up and employees are more cautious about speaking out is debatable, but it should be the aim.

The government could take a lead on this issue, but instead appears determined to push on with its agenda of reforming employment law and making it easier to dismiss staff in companies where there are fewer than ten employees.  The Independent reported yesterday that George Osborne may include measures in his budget next month.    It is unlikely that the cause of diversity will be assisted when the backdrop is one of reducing employee’s rights in the workplace.  If there was real evidence that employment rights had a causative effect upon economic growth the government’s plans might be more justifiable but I don’t think anyone has yet produced any such evidence.  Instead, as usual, employment rights are kicked around from left to right like a football.

Which takes us back to the playground.

Michael Scutt, Employment Solicitor 

Employment solicitor with Crane and Staples, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. Blogger & writer. I like cycling, cricket, football and history.