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How to spot the subtle signs of bullying at work

bullying  Britain's new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Minister) Dominic Raab leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on July 9, 2018 following his appointment. - Raab, formerly a junior house minister, was appointed as Britain's new Brexit minister after the resignation of David Davis. British Prime Minister Theresa May faced a crisis in her cabinet on July 9 after Brexit minister David Davis and one of his deputies resigned over a plan to retain strong economic ties to the EU even after leaving the bloc. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Dominic Raab was forced to resign as deputy prime minister following allegations of bullying. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty (TOLGA AKMEN via Getty Images)

Dominic Raab recently resigned as deputy prime minister after a report investigating bullying allegations against him was handed to the prime minister. He was accused of being intimidating and aggressive – and staff members claimed his behaviour led to stress and anxiety. In one case, one staff member took stress-related sick leave.

Bullying at work is rife. According to one survey, a quarter of workers have been bullied or harassed in the workplace. However, many cases go unreported or undocumented because employees are too afraid to speak up over fears of being ignored or losing their jobs. Concerningly, a quarter of employees think challenging issues like bullying and harassment are swept under the carpet by their employers.

Although employers must try to protect their staff from bullying, it can sometimes be difficult to spot. Bukola Bayo-Yusuf, a HR expert and leader, says there can be subtle signs that someone is being targeted at work – and it’s important to learn how to spot them.

Increased anxiety

“Some of the obvious signs someone is being bullied is around anxiety, especially if that person has not previously been an anxious person,” says Bayo-Yusuf.

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“If their anxiety skyrockets at work, this may be a sign. If someone becomes severely indecisive when they have been previously able to make calm decisions under pressure, that might also be a sign.”

Read more: Seven self-help books to boost your career and your confidence

Obviously, there may be other reasons why a worker may feel more anxious, including problems at home. However, it’s important for employers not to make assumptions and to create an open, non-judgemental environment where people can speak up about issues they may be facing.

Inappropriate banter

According to the law firm Irwin Mitchell, a third of UK workers have experienced bullying masked as banter. Although it can be harmless, it can also be relentless, one-sided and personal – which counts as bullying. People dishing out banter may also unfairly accuse the other person of being overly sensitive, or overreacting to a joke.

Withdrawing at work

“Sudden under-performance or a spike in absence can also be a sign that someone is being bullied,” says Bayo-Yusuf. “If someone has always been quite social with the team, then they completely withdraw, that can be a sign.

“It’s more complicated due to remote working post-Covid, so line managers need to be more vigilant in terms of looking out for their teams,” she adds.

Angry businesswoman shouting to a stressed employee at office.
One in four workers say they have been bullied or harrassed in the workplace. Photo: Getty (Bojan89 via Getty Images)

Withholding information

Bayo-Yusuf says that anyone who is consistently and repeatedly withholding information from a particular member of staff, or excluding them from meetings, may be a bully.

“Clear indications of bullying include being overly critical of their work in front of others or talking about them with other people,” she says. Additionally, purposefully ignoring, avoiding or not paying attention to someone – or "forgetting" to invite them to events or meetings – may also be examples of bullying.

Adding or taking away workloads

Managers might also engage in other types of bullying including piling too much work on someone, not allowing them to have any work, or setting them up to fail. This kind of behaviour can lead to excessive stress – and even force people to quit.

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“Although it’s not just a line manager that can bully people, they have more power to be able to do things like take responsibility away or have more of a say in the performance rating of an individual,” says Bayo-Yusuf.

What should employers do about bullying?

As a manager or leader, the first thing to do if you suspect bullying is taking place is to try and have a conversation, Bayo-Yusuf advises.

“Have an informal conversation and be specific about the behaviour, use examples and ask questions around context,” she says.

“If the behaviour doesn’t stop after that, it’s worth flagging to the HR team. Most organisations have a bullying and harassment policy. Before you go to HR, have two or three examples because a lot of the behaviour needs to be repeated in order for it to be bullying.”

Watch: Development minister 'very regretful' over Raab allegations

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