When we talk about bullying at work, we typically think of an issue between colleagues, or in some cases, bullying by someone more senior in a position of power. However, there are now increasing instances of workers mistreating people in management positions, in what is being referred to as ‘upward bullying’.
The following practical guide for employers and managers closely examines the increased incidence of upward bullying, from what this is to how to identify an upward bully, together with some best practice tips on how to deal with this type of bullying.
What is upward bullying?
Upward bullying is essentially bullying by an employee or group of employees towards their immediate manager, or someone in a more senior role.
It is all too easy to envisage a bully as someone in the workplace within a position of power, abusing that power to victimise those under their command and control. However, those in management are not immune to being bullied themselves, where there has been a marked incidence of cases of upward bullying, also known as subordinate bullying, in recent years.
This could be attributable to the prevalence of electronic communication and digital platforms in the workplace, where employees may behave differently online to how they would in person, or where disgruntled employees can more easily ‘band together’ against someone more senior.
As with all forms of bullying behaviour, the causes of upward bullying can be varied. It can arise, for example, out of organisational change which an employee or group of employees resent and for which they blame their manager. This might be because they do not accept a new manager who has been recruited externally or appointed ‘over their heads’, not least if a manager has taken on a role which one or more of their team members had applied for or aspired to secure. It can also occur if a manager or supervisor has become isolated in organisational terms, where their formal power has been eroded, or even where the perpetrator is enabled by support from a higher authority within the business.
This is a complex area, which means it can often be difficult in reality for those in a position of authority to initially realise that they are being bullied by their staff. It is usually with the passage of time that a manager or supervisor will be able to identity a pattern of upward bullying emerging, such as increased hostility from certain members of staff or even a change in the behaviour of their whole team towards them.
Examples of upward bullying
Examples of upward bullying can include an employee or employees:
- Being blatantly rude and offensive to a manager
- Showing continued disrespect to a manager
- Constantly undermining a manager’s authority in front of others
- Constantly criticising or belittling the manager’s leadership
- Refusing to complete tasks requested by a manger
- Refusing to follow instructions given by a manger
- Openly ridiculing or teasing a manager
- Openly demeaning or humiliating a manager
- Gossiping behind a manager’s back and/or spreading rumours
- Doing things that make the manager appear unskilled or unable to do their job properly
- Constantly requesting private meetings that are manipulative in nature
- Making unrealistic demands and expectations
- Making unfounded complaints about a manger to undermine them
- Failing to comply with rules, meet deadlines and attend meetings on time.
Impact of upward bullying
The potential effects of upward bullying can be far-reaching, both on any individual being subjected to this type of unwanted conduct, but also on the business as a whole.
For the victim
For the target, ie; anyone in a leadership role being subjected to upward bullying, the net effect is usually the same as for anyone else being bullied at work. This typically means that, regardless of who is on the receiving end and who is responsible for the bullying behaviour, this can quickly cause the target to suffer from work-related stress, with the potential to have a devastating impact on their emotional health and wellbeing.
If left unaddressed, work-related stress can result in prolonged or frequent periods of sickness-related absence. Even when present at work, the target may feel unable to function effectively due to their poor state of mental health. In serious cases, this can result in the target feeling forced to resign or being found unfit for work in the long-term.
For the business
For the business, there are various adverse effects that can arise out of upward bullying, including the cost to the business associated with prolonged or frequent periods of sick leave, as well as the potential loss of a senior member of staff. The physical absence of the target in question, as well as the absence of an effective authority figure, even when the target is present, can also have an adverse impact on team performance and morale.
Additionally, in cases where a target feels forced to resign because of upward bullying, and the employer has failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent this, this could expose the business to a claim for constructive dismissal. Equally, where a target has been let go from the business because they are no longer capable of doing their role due to work-related stress caused by upward bullying, this can result in a claim for unfair dismissal.
Bullying of itself is not against the law, although harassment is. Harassment is essentially bullying based on discriminatory reasons, so where the unwanted conduct is referable to say the target’s age, any disability, their sex or sexual orientation, as well as any gender reassignment, race, religion or belief. It could also be where the unwanted conduct is linked to a perceived protected characteristic (discrimination by perception) or because they associate with someone with that characteristic (discrimination by association). This means that a target may have a claim for harassment against the perpetrators and the employer, where the employer has failed to take all reasonable steps to prevent this.
However, the employer should bear in mind that where a manager or supervisor claims constructive or unfair dismissal, they do not need to prove harassment, but only a breach of the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence. This is where the employer has failed to effectively protect the individual’s health and wellbeing by putting a stop to the bullying.
How to identify an upward bully
While many characteristics of upward bullying are similar to those of downward bullying, such as manipulation, verbal put-downs and gossip, there are some unifying features of upward bullies that differentiate them from those who victimise people beneath them:
- Upward bullies rarely act alone: while a downward bully will often act in isolation by leveraging their authority, an upward bully will frequently form a clique. In this way, they can more easily undermine someone appointed to a leadership role, creating an informal and often collective power over the person who is actually in the position of authority. In some cases, members of the mob may each be exerting their own influence to fuel any upward bullying while, in others, mob members may not fully appreciate that they are being manipulated as messengers, where blame will be transferred to the target.
- The bullying behaviour stays under the radar: the types of bullying behaviour and indirect tactics used by employees to intimidate those in authority can often be subtle. As such, rather than exhibiting outright rudeness or disrespect, those who bully their managers or supervisors are likely to turn to more insidious behaviours so that their misconduct is far more difficult to detect, such as withholding information to erode the target’s legitimate authority. Subtle acts of insubordination are also more difficult to punish. In many ways, this can leave a manager feeling gaslighted, questioning whether or not they are being irrational or overly-sensitive, and whether they may have misjudged the situation.
- Formal procedures are taken advantage of: upward bullying is very often characterised by perpetrators using formal grievance systems to bully managers and supervisors, making unfounded complaints that the employer is then duty-bound to investigate and take formal disciplinary action where the complaint is upheld. There is also often a ringleader who encourages others to voice their complaints about the target individual. If an organisation fails to recognise the possibility of employees misusing formal procedures in this way, this can easily result in the target having to constantly defend themselves. In this way, the actual grievance system becomes an integral part of the bullying process.
- Remote working creates a safe space for upward bullying: the rise of remote working, together with the emergence of better technologies, has given some employees additional avenues to be able to undermine and manipulate managers and supervisors. Apart from being able to hide behind their computer screens, remote work gives employees more insight into the personal lives of their targets who may also be working from home, where this information is then vulnerable to being manipulated. It may start with post-zoom banter about personal aspects of the target’s life, which can quickly create a mob mentality, where talking behind the person’s back becomes culturally acceptable. There is also often a higher sense of power that bullies have when they are working from home, where the safety of their own environment seems to encourage defiance.
Is upward bullying a disciplinary offence?
Workplace bullying of any form taking place in any ‘direction’ can constitute misconduct and should be dealt with within the organisation’s disciplinary policy and procedure. Depending on the facts of the matters, insubordination may also be an issue, warranting disciplinary action.
How to deal with upward bullying at work
Despite the incidence of upward bullying being on the rise, it is still rarely talked about in workplaces, where the focus tends to be on measures to deal with downward or sideways bullying. Upward bullying is also rarely reported, where managers will often perceive this as an admission of weakness or failings in respect of their management-style. So where does this leave the employer in knowing how best to deal with upward bullying?
First and foremost, it is important for employers to recognise that upward bullying represents an increasing behavioural trend in workplaces, where proactive steps need to be taken to tackle this. Unfortunately, it not uncommon for an organisation to prohibit a manager from lodging their own formal grievance, where all they can do is instigate disciplinary action against an upward bully, triggering a completely different process. This needs to change, where a suitable process must be put in place for upward bullying, one in which the target is given the same opportunity as other complainants to have their say.
It is also important for employers to review any workplace policy on bullying and harassment to make specific reference to upward bullying, together with a clear explanation and illustrative examples as to how this can arise. This could be followed up with specific training around upward bullying, not only for management but also for other members of staff. It is important both for those responsible for unwanted conduct at work, as well as those on the receiving end, to understand what constitutes bullying and how this can affect both the target and the business. The potential perpetrators of bullying should also be warned of the consequences, in terms of disciplinary sanctions, if caught out.
It is essential to ensure that those who are bullied feel empowered to come forward, regardless of their position or status within the company, with the confidence that their complaint will be taken seriously, without fear of reprisals or judgment of their skills. Equally, it is important that those who are happy to undermine and manipulate their managers are made fully aware of the possible ramifications for them professionally.
Given the unique nature of upward bullying as a form of unwanted conduct in the workplace, employers may struggle to know how to deal with any complaint. However, the following best practice tips can help employers to effectively address this problem:
- Always acknowledge the complaint and take it seriously. This should be the case, even if the alleged bullying is not obvious or has not been noticed by others, or where the allegations cannot initially be substantiated. As with all cases of bullying behaviour, upward bullying must be fully investigated to unravel what has happened, although care must be taken, not least where the perpetrators of the alleged upward bullying are prepared to use manipulation as a means to flip the situation around on their victim.
- Try to identify all those who may be behind the upward bullying, considering the context in which this might have happened and investigating whether employees have colluded to share derogatory views on the manager or supervisor using forms of technology.
- Challenge any employee or group of employees appropriately and fairly based on the evidence presented, or identified to date, but be prepared to instigate formal disciplinary proceedings against any employee who upwardly bullies. Employers have the right to expect employees to treat senior members of staff with respect, and follow all reasonable instructions, although it is also important to identify wider issues within the culture of the organisation that may need to be addressed so as to prevent further problems.
- Provide relevant support for the individual who is on the receiving end of the bullying behaviour. Even though the target is in a position of leadership, they can still suffer the same emotional consequences as other victims, including feeling distressed and emotionally exposed, not only by being upwardly bullied but when reporting this.
- As an investigation of this kind can be complex, it is important to try to use an experienced and skilled member of HR to unravel what has happened and pinpoint the issues in an objective and fair manner. However, the importance of impartiality cannot be underestimated where, in some cases, it may be best to look beyond the internal resources of HR and senior management, seeking external support from a specialist.
For advice on any aspect of workforce management, including upward bullying and the use of disciplinary procedures to deal with this type of misconduct, contact us.
Last updated: 27 December 2023