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Bullying and harassment in the social care workplace

In the past few weeks there are not many of us who have escaped media coverage on sexual harassment and bullying. The Harvey Weinstein affair and the behaviour of members of our political institutions has done much to concentrate the mind. This is not an issue however that is confined to the rich and famous. It does happen in the workplace and no doubt in the social care industry. ACAS are an organisation that I greatly respect for their guidance and expertise, and in this blog I provide a short review on their guidance to managers on bullying and harassment.

What is bullying and harassment

Bullying and harassment means any unwanted behaviour that makes someone feel intimidated, degraded, humiliated or offended. It is not necessarily always obvious or apparent to others, and may happen in the workplace without an employer’s awareness.

Bullying or harassment can be between two individuals or it may involve groups of people. It might be obvious or it might be insidious. It may be persistent or an isolated incident. It can also occur in written communications, by phone or through email, not just face-to-face.

Examples of bullying / harassing behaviour could include:

  1. spreading malicious rumours, or insulting someone

  2. exclusion or victimisation

  3. unfair treatment

  4. deliberately undermining a competent worker by constant criticism.

Under the Equality Act 2010, harassment is unwanted conduct which is related to one of the following: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation and is therefore unlawful.

People do not always feel able or confident enough to complain, particularly if the harasser is a manager or senior member of staff. Sometimes they will simply resign. It is therefore very important for managers to ensure that staff are aware of options available to them to deal with potential bullying or harassment, and that these remain confidential.

What can staff about being bullied or harassed?

If staff are being bullied or harassed, they should take any action you decide upon as quickly as possible. It is always best to try to resolve this informally in the first instance as sometimes a quick word can be all it takes. However, if this fails there are a number of options for staff to consider:

  1. see someone that staff feel comfortable with to discuss the problem, perhaps someone in HR or company counsellor

  2. talk to your trade union or staff representative

  3. keep a diary of all incidents, record: dates, times, witnesses etc

  4. keep any relevant letter, emails, notes etc.

Why a manager should act against bullying or harassment?

Bullying and harassment create an unhappy and unproductive workplace, that has:

  1. poor morale and poor employee relations

  2. loss of respect for managers or supervisors

  3. poor performance / lost productivity

  4. absence / resignations

  5. tribunal and other court cases and payment of unlimited compensation.

What can be done to prevent bullying or harassment taking place in the service?

There are a number of key considerations that should help to prevent this behaviour:

  1. develop and implement a formal policy: this can be kept simple, but you should consider involving staff when writing it

  2. set a good example: the behaviour of employers and senior managers is as important as any formal policy

  3. maintain fair procedures for dealing promptly with complaints from staff

  4. set standards of behaviour with a service statement about the standards of behaviour expected; this could be included in the staff handbook.

Is workplace bulling getting worse?

A study in 2011, by public sector union Unison, reported that six out of 10 public sector workers in the UK had either been bullied themselves or had witnessed bullying in their workplace. The findings also suggested a strong link between the increased incidence of bullying and the economic downturn, with one in four workers believing that staff cutbacks had been a direct cause of workplace bullying.

The majority of those polled in the Unison survey – 53% – said they would be too scared to raise concerns over bullying in the current climate, compared with just 25% two years ago.

Individuals on the receiving end of unwanted behaviour described conduct such as being yelled at, eye-rolling, verbal abuse, being ‘talked down to’ in a humiliating way in front of colleagues, as well as more concerted patterns of ill-treatment such as ostracism (‘being sent to Coventry’).

Issues raised often centred on ill-treatment by direct supervisors, frequently building to the point where individuals dreaded going to work, and where their home and family life had been affected. Many were on leave or had recently taken leave to ‘escape’ the workplace, to allay the work-related stress and anxiety they were experiencing.


Harassment and bullying in the workplace may not receive the attention it deserves. To those who suffer the consequences, they find so stressful that it leads to them giving up their job. This is not only damaging to the individual, but the service. To prevent it services need to adopt a culture that not only identifies harassment and bullying, but has procedures in place to prevent it and support staff who suffer from it. Managers should refer to the ACAS website for more information on this topic.

Albert Cook – BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy

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