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Anti-bullying policies 'not working on their own' - Acas policy paper

More needs to be done to better tackle bullying in workplaces, according to a new Acas policy discussion paper.

pdf icon Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces [429kb] in Britain's workplaces said that the common strategies of anti-bullying policies and training managers in how to use them, while important, had 'not led to an overall reduction in bullying' in Britain.

While policies and skilled managers are 'essential components' for addressing bullying in the workplace, it said, a shortcoming is that policies often rely on bullied individuals pushing for a resolution to problems themselves, through informal and then formal processes.

The report quoted research that showed that bullied employees can be reluctant to speak out on bullying for a number of reasons, including:

  • embarrassment
  • low self-esteem
  • guilt that they somehow brought the bullying on themselves
  • fear of being seen as a troublemaker
  • distrust of management
  • lack of confidence in the grievance procedure
  • fear of reprisals
  • apprehension about losing their job.

Obstacles to informal resolution

Early resolution through informal routes has been well-established by research as 'critical to both the prevention and management of bullying', the report said, but there can be 'significant obstacles' to achieving this.

Calls to the Acas Helpline suggested that some employees could be discouraged from making informal approaches and told to make formal complaints if issues were to be investigated.

Informal approaches were also found to be difficult if the complaint was about an employer directly, or about the employee's line manager.

Barriers to formal resolution

But forcing complaints down the formal route wasn't necessarily the answer either, the report said, particularly for more 'relational' conflicts and personality clashes, which don't tend to suit such procedures.

Other barriers to the use of formal procedures in bullying situations include:

  • inexperienced managers may feel they lack the skills and knowledge to go through the processes properly, especially in complex interpersonal situations
  • there may be a reluctance to investigate high-value employees even when misconduct has occurred
  • managers may prefer to move staff around rather than deal with underlying poor behaviour
  • tough performance targets can take priority over tackling unwanted behaviours, putting management practice at odds with the intentions set out in anti-bullying policies.

The upshot is that many bullied people can end up feeling that there is no effective recourse available to them in the workplace.

What can be done?

Research shows that, to address bullying most effectively, it should be seen as more than just ad hoc conflict between individuals. In fact, the overall 'workplace climate' plays a crucial role. Poor job design, work intensification, stress and job insecurity can all contribute to a workplace environment where bullying is more likely to occur. Pressures arising from restructuring and organisational change are also associated with increased rates of reported bullying.

Leadership and management styles also play an important role. These include not only autocratic styles, which directly use force or pressure to achieve goals. Laissez faire leadership, where managers avoid dealing with conflict, can also create fertile ground for bullying.

As a result, the report suggested that organisations should recognise that anti-bullying policies, including disciplinary and grievance procedures, may not be fully effective on their own.

Organisations should promote a 'positive workplace culture' in which unwanted behaviours and incivility (precursors to bullying) are recognised as harmful and where there is a clear commitment to taking them seriously.

This includes fostering a trustful, supportive workplace, through developing codes of conduct and enabling people to talk more openly about the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Giving frontline managers and supervisors explicit responsibility for preventing conflicts from arising can help but, for this to be most effective, managers must have strong people management skills and 'emotional intelligence'.

More details on best practice for the successful management of bullying through putting worker wellbeing at the heart a workplace culture can be found in the Acas policy paper Seeking Better Solutions: Tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain's workplaces.

Acas publications and services

Acas has detailed information for employers and employees on Bullying and harassment, including the pdf icon Advice leaflet - Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers [172kb].

Acas experts can visit your workplace and work with you to develop a robust bullying and harassment policy and help you deal with related issues more effectively. See Equality and diversity: how Acas can help for more details.

Practical training is also available on Bullying and harassmentDiscipline and grievance, improving Skills for supervisors, managing Absence, Handling difficult conversations, and Stress in the workplace.

For free, impartial advice and guidance visit Acas Helpline Online.

Visit the Acas Training Courses, Workshops and Projects area for more information.

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