What’s it like to walk in the shoes of an accused workplace bully? Can we find empathy for that employee? Or is it someone who has been labelled and the mud has been well and truly smeared all over them?
If we explore this question from a research base, it is difficult to answer. Thirty years has produced little evidence based research exploring the accused or the user of bullying type behaviours within a workplace context.
In this article, I review a research paper that will help us understand some of the potential concerns from the accused’s perspective. It is a qualitative piece from the UK that investigates the experiences of eight accused interviewees that may help you to understand a little of the accused’s perspective and what you need to do to provide appropriate support.
What does the bullying label mean to the accused?
One of the key findings that struck me was the self perception of being accused of bullying or labelled a bully. This finding may help understand why people accused of bullying behaviours don’t come forward for research.
The interviewees likened an accusation of being a bully to being labelled a racist, a sexual harasser, a bigot or a pedophile. These are terms that I suggest would drive anyone underground and to feelings of internalised shame and humiliation. Therefore, the label of being called a bullying can have a devastating affect on the accused and how they perceive themselves at that point in time.
Further exploring the presented findings, one can understand why an accused employee would feel that way. The respondents felt isolated and frozen out of day-to-day business. They reported being excluded from the conversations that may occur around the water cooler. They reported their line managers reduced their contact compared to pre-bullying accusations and during any investigation period. They had become persona non grata.
However, it is not only the actions of their line managers that left them feeling isolated, but the company systems and processes as well.
In dealing with the bullying claims, companies would reinforce confidentiality of the process. While this in itself is not unreasonable, the interviewees were left feeling that they couldn’t talk to anyone This included EAP, which wasn’t offered at all in some instances. This was in contrast to the perception the target was offered all the support they required.
The accused reported feeling unable to access advice, guidance and support. This is in a situation which is difficult, often protracted and oppositional in nature. The latter in itself was exacerbated as the accused reported the policies were often written with the needs to the target in mind, rather than the accused. This required a defensive response from the accused.
Support and self care = guilt and incompetence
A disincentive for the accused to accessing support is the perception that it will reinforce their lack of managerial skills and leadership good behaviour. They also felt they had to be at work, carrying on their role. If they were not they feared this would reinforce perceptions of the guilt as they were unable to face coming into work. Support and self care were seen to be less of an option for them, compared to their accuser.
Ultimately, the accused reported that they wanted their employers to look at bullying claims critically, they want them investigated. However, they wanted them to investigate circumstances that surrounded the bullying claims as well; a response born out of false bullying claims.
Considerations for our workplaces
As has been mentioned, this is a limited study, but there are some key considerations for our workplaces. This includes:
- Acknowledging the impact that a bullying accusation has on the employee including their fears of how they might be perceived and allaying those fears.
- Ensure that they are aware self care is important throughout this stressful period.
- Encourage and provide effective support to the accused throughout and post the process.
- Ensure they have access to appropriate guidance and advice as they move through the process. Nominate an appropriate employee who can fill this role and check in on a regular basis.
- Reinforce that any investigation, formal or informal, that takes place will be completed in a fair manner and there is no assumption of guilt.
Are you curious to learn more about our approach to workplace bullying support?
Contact us today for a confidential discussion on how we can help you support your employees throughout bullying claim process.