When the tables turn: what to do about upwards bullying

Many HR managers have enough of a headache dealing with workplace bullies, most of whom target those on the same level or below them in the organisation. However, there is another trend that can be just as toxic to any workplace – upwards bullying, where employees are turning on their managers.

There can be several reasons behind this phenomenon. Upwards bullying is typically seen in times of uncertainty, for example when an organisation is going through a restructuring phase, and employees are anxious about what the future holds. This can lead to them perceiving upper management as the source of the problem and thus venting their frustrations.

Upwards bullying can also be a result of soured work relations, for example if an individual was selected for promotion ahead of another. All forms of bullying, regardless of their direction, must be appropriately addressed and the employer may need to undertake a formal workplace investigation either internally or by using an external specialist provider.

Some important points to keep in mind with upwards bullying are:


Recognise it as bullying

As managers can be unfamiliar with subordinates placing unfair pressure on them, they may be confused as to whether this constitutes bullying or not.

The important thing to remember is that bullying is not acceptable and is a workplace health and safety issue, no matter who the perpetrator and the victim are. Accepting that a senior manager can be bullied by an employee is the first step to addressing the problem.


Take prompt action

Upwards bullying should be treated like any other instance of bullying – there is no room for leniency just because it is a staff member harassing a manager.

Conducting a thorough workplace investigation or inquiry will not only gather evidence to determine what has occurred but should also help to uncover factors which may be contributing to poor behaviour.

Disciplinary action may be necessary but it may also be appropriate to provide further training, workplace mediation, coaching or even counselling to those involved in a bullying matter.


Prevent future incidents from occurring

Once a bullying case has been resolved, it is important to analyse it and outline some takeaway points to prevent similar incidents from occurring in future. It may also be beneficial to look at activities to help restore good working relationships within a team affected by a bullying matter.

Key steps that are often necessary include:

  • providing bullying and harassment training to both employees and managers (it is important to include what is and is not bullying to help managers identify if upwards bullying is occurring);
  • reviewing organisational policies on workplace behaviour; and
  • examining how policies can be more effectively communicated to staff.