Bullying and Performance Management

by ukcivilservant

Dame Laura Cox QC today published her report into bullying and harassment in the Palace of Westminster.  It contains some very helpful general advice and definitions, especially for managers (a) who receive complaints of bullying, or (b) who are concerned that they may be accused of bullying when trying to improve the performance of their staff.

Apart from two comments, the following text is taken almost verbatim from Dame Laura’s report.

What is Bullying?

The report contains two useful definitions of bullying:

  • Behaviour that cannot be objectively justified by a reasonable code of conduct, and whose likely or actual cumulative effect is to threaten, undermine, constrain, humiliate or harm another person or their property, reputation, self-esteem, self-confidence or ability to perform.
  • Offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.

The report notes that bullying or harassment:

  • may be by an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people.
  • may be obvious or it may be insidious.
  • may be persistent or an isolated incident.
  • can also occur in written communications, by phone or through email, not just face to face.

Whatever form it takes, bullying is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.

Performance Management

Staff who are facing criticism of their performance may feel that they are being bullied by their manager.  The report offers this sensible advice:

  • When introducing new standards of performance, a good manager will usually involve all the members of the team in agreeing them, rather than seek to impose them without discussion and with accompanying threats of disciplinary action if they are not met.
  • Positive contributions and improvements in performance will be monitored, acknowledged and rewarded openly, rather than dealt with arbitrarily, involving obvious acts of favouritism, or just ignored altogether.
  • A failure by someone to achieve the required standards will be dealt with initially as a performance-improvement issue, the employee being treated with civility throughout and with the provision of appropriate support, rather than pressure to conform being exerted using sarcasm, ridicule, threats or humiliation, often in the presence of others in the team.
  • An under-performing employee should know from the start that their performance is under investigation, and why, rather than learning only after the event that it has been under investigation for some time, and that disciplinary action is now imminent.

Comment: This advice is sensible but I would add that I think it unfortunate that HR professionals generally refer to formal performance management warnings etc. as ‘disciplinary action’.  The word ‘discipline’ implies serious fault – such as bullying – and should, I think, be reserved for genuinely bad behaviour.  Under-performing staff need to have their performance managed – if necessary to the point of dismissal – but they will often be in the wrong job for their skills and experience. I don’t think that they should be ‘disciplined’.

The Need for Full Records

The report notes that:

  • Patterns of behaviour are extremely important in tackling bullying. It is always right to consider whether the “perpetrator” was under acute pressure and just having a bad day, for example, and whether this was just an isolated outburst with no lasting effects and the behaviour was out of character, or whether such incidents had happened before.
  • It is therefore important for organisations to maintain reliable records and to log reported incidents and their outcomes accurately, and to have systems in place to enable patterns to be picked up and their historical and systemic significance understood.

Comment:  The implication of the above advice is that an isolated outburst is bullying and should be recognised as such.  But, if reported to the employer, it should not lead to formal disciplinary action against the bully, if he or she appreciates that their behaviour was unacceptable, and if the behaviour is not repeated.

Martin Stanley

Editor      The UK Civil Service and Understanding Regulation websites