When we first think of bullying we tend to automatically think of downward bullying. This is the situation where a manager/supervisor or a more senior worker, bullies and/or harasses junior staff. However, little is spoken about upward bullying, that is, when the manager is bullied by their own team or team member.

Gold Coast employment lawyer Scott McSwan of McKays Solicitors has indicated that upward bullying is on the way up with one quarter of his recent cases being in this category. This is backed up by research by Sarah Branch from Griffith University that indicates nearly one quarter of Australian bosses are targets of upwards bullying.

Branch observes that “although managers clearly have formal authority, they can also be victims of bullying and need just as much support as other staff”. Mr McSwan observed that upward bullying could increase when employees obtain the right to take colleagues to the Fair Work Commission under changes to the Fair Work Act that will take effect in July.

The occurrence of upward bullying takes many shapes and forms. Managers have reported that staff displayed regular, inappropriate and unreasonable behaviour towards them. Usually it is in response to a “reasonable request” by the manager, well within the team members’ position description and job requirements.

Sometimes the bullying is in the form of a junior staff member making a complaint to senior management about them. The manager finds themselves having to explain the situation and circumstances of the incident, spending time justifying their own actions. Usually, the altercation with the team member has occurred one to one, and the difficulty has been providing evidence that the team member’s “complaint” is ill founded, false or exaggerated. Managers can find themselves in a position where they may have trouble defending themselves, because a team member has invented a claim.

Often there is a ringleader trying to stir up less committed staff, with the bullies drawing their strength from group situations. Workplace investigations have found reluctance on the part of staff to speak individually without the presence of the ringleader.

Upward bullying can increase during times of uncertainty, for example restructuring. The manager may be seen as the source of the uncertainty, and therefore should be blamed for what is happening to the team. Upward bullying may also occur when a manager has been recruited and another team member expected the promotion, or when management attempt to make changes.

Often managers are reluctant to report upwards bullying because they feel it shows that they do not have the authority to control their team. This is why senior management should encourage managers to report cases of upward bullying to senior management or human resources.

It is also important for managers to keep more senior management in the loop at all times, while being aware of the organisation’s bullying and harassment policies and procedures. Building better team and personal relationships is a course of action open to all managers, with the aim of breaking down the “us” and “them” mentality.

iHR Australia cautions that a lack of action on bullying can expose organisations and individuals to legal liability and offers Anti-Discrimination, Bullying and Harassment Training for managers and employees.

Recent articles

Balance of probailities

Understanding Balance of Probabilities in Workplace Investigations

Author - John Boardman, Director Workplace Relations The more serious the allegation, the more serious consideration should be given by...
Remote or isolated work

The impact of poor support on remote and isolated workers: Summary of the webinar

Remote and isolated work encompasses more than just working in a home setting; it taps into the narrative of employees...
Reasonable management.

What isn’t Workplace Bullying? Reasonable Management.

Article updated on 15 April 2024 [Originally published in 2017] Workplace bullying is an organisational problem. It can happen in...
Trauma informed investigations

Trauma-informed workplace investigations: Prioritising ‘care’ over rigid processes

Interviewee: Kirsten Hartmann, Senior Workplace Relations Adviser/Workplace Investigator In August 2023, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released four guiding...