Bullying In The Workplace: An Interview with New Dawn’s Vanessa Scrimshaw

We sat down with New Dawn Resources Managing Director and HR Business Partner, Vanessa Scrimshaw to talk about bullying in the workplace for Anti-Bullying Week. 

Q. The last 18 months have seen bullying and harassment front and centre of the media, why do you think there has been such a rise in complaints?

A. It’s certainly not because bullying is new or even increasing. I think the rise in awareness and media coverage is simply due to the high profile of those affected and accused, who are now speaking out. To a certain degree I think it was inevitable in part due to a change in expectations and awareness of the rights of the generation now entering the workforce. Social media has played a significant part in spreading the news as well.

Those now in their 20s joining the workplace saw a massive focus on bullying whilst they were in school, the messages from there are ingrained in them and, as a result, they are far more likely to speak out and raise complaints now they are working.

Q. So are the complaints you are seeing predominantly coming from those in that age bracket?

A. No, I think everyone from every generation is far more aware of their rights in work than they have ever been.

Q. It is national anti-bullying week this week, do you think all the awareness and campaigns are helping to reduce bullying?

A. I certainly think companies are getting better at dealing with complaints and educating managers, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying bullying is in decline. Behaviour has changed and bullies have evolved. If we looked back at the traditional factory foreman role from 100 years ago everyone would consider them to be bullies in today’s workplace, behaviours and expectations as to what is acceptable continue to evolve.

Q. A well know figurehead in retail is under fire at the moment and has rolled out the ‘it was banter’ line, what do you think to that?

A. In my experience there are genuine cases where the individual accused of bullying is surprised and even distraught to learn that have upset or offended a colleague. Whilst I doubt it was the case with this high profile complaint, at times banter can go a bit too far not because of any malice or mischief but more likely high spirits, a lack of social skills and ignorance about their colleagues.

We do however come across those who bully others in full knowledge of their actions and this is a common stance to try to hide behind.

Q. So how do you differentiate between the two, actual bullies and those who just go a little too far?

A. Often when a complaint comes through, even from a client we have worked with for years it is almost impossible to know for sure what has gone on. If the individual has a history of warnings or complaints it is easy to jump to conclusions but we should avoid this.

I’m pleased to say that most of the time the situation is one in which the perpetrator has not intentionally gone out of their way to upset or offend a colleague, which means that a process of education and mediation is likely to work. Intention is important when looking into complaint and considering what to do about the individuals.

Q. How do you deal with genuine bullies?

A. It depends on what my role in the process is. Sometimes I am investigating the complaint and passing my findings on to an internal director or manager. Sometimes I’m the chairperson dealing with a disciplinary, grievance or appeal. Whatever role I play, as a client’s HR Business Partner I would offer my advice as to what action should be taken.

In the event of purposeful and deliberate bullying, although it might sound odd, I don’t always feel a dismissal is the only or the right outcome. Without getting too far into it, someone who has a narcissistic or Machiavellian personality is clearly a worry for the company and their colleagues and in this case a dismissal might be appropriate, but someone who is acting to hide their own vulnerability or personal struggles, might be deserving of a more understanding approach. You may still have to uphold the complaint and issue a significant warning, but you might stop short of dismissal and try to change their behaviour.

Q. Do you think employers and managers can change people’s behaviours?

A. That’s a difficult one, I don’t believe any amount of training in the workplace can genuinely change an adult’s personality, but you can education people on how their behaviour impacts on others.

At New Dawn, we educate and train people how to do things differently, try different approaches and even adopt coping mechanisms. We often recommend counselling and other routes as well but I personally would never profess to be able to re-train someone’s actual personality.

Q. Can you envisage a time when bullying will be eradicated?

A. I would like to think that this is possible, but people are complex and there will always be potential for misunderstandings and clashes. Workplaces can be pressurised at times and feelings can run high, the aim should be for more empathy in the workplace, better education and the upskilling of line managers to foresee scenarios and intervene at an early stage.

If you’d like advice on how to identify and handle bullying in your workplace, contact the New Dawn Resources team on 01484 680098 or contact us via the website.