Bullying the boss: what to do about upward bullying

Tuesday August 2, 2022

More common than you might think, upward bullying is a very real problem for many Australian workplaces. It is toxic behaviour and should never be tolerated.

Upward bullying is difficult to manage, as it occurs from below – with staff members often ganging up to bully a manager, team leader or supervisor. Why this happens is unclear. Sometimes it occurs after a member of the team has been promoted or an external manager has been brought in, who according to the staff, simply doesn’t “fit”.

Upward bullying can manifest as:

  • Information being withheld from those in leadership roles. This indirect tactic is a subtle form of bullying that can be hard to pinpoint. Sometimes the victim may not even be able to prove this is happening, or that the behaviour is aimed at them.
  • Multiple accusations towards a team leader or manager. This may manifest as a HR department suddenly being inundated with formal complaints about a manager – which can initially look like a case of serious misconduct.
  • A manager or team leader being excluded from the team, whether just in general conversation, or in lunchtime gatherings, or in team meetings. Upward bullies tend to work together, with collective eye rolls, or subtle digs at the victim
  • A refusal to perform tasks assigned by the manager and team leader. In an attempt to reclaim power, the upward bully (or bullies) may simply say “no” when asked to do something, leaving the victim powerless.

These tiny actions can combine to have a huge impact on the person who is being bullied, leaving them feeling undermined, powerless and with nowhere to turn. This will almost always have a knock-on effect, impacting the company’s morale and productivity. Ideally, you should have a skilled, experienced and non-biased HR team in place who can handle situations of upward bullying with sensitivity and tact.

A good HR professional will take the time to look at the situation objectively, hearing both sides of the story, before carefully examining the track records of both the victim and the perpetrator/s. It’s important to take a step back in situations of upward bullying, in order to establish the facts and come up with a positive plan of action to move forward as a company.

The most important step in handling situations of upward bullying is to keep the lines of communication open. Encourage a transparent and open communication policy in the workplace, in which victims of bullying are encouraged to speak up, regardless of their status or position within the company.

If you’re in need of professional, unbiased HR advice, reach out to the HR Dept. We can assist with policies and strategies to keep your workplace free of bullying.

Preventing People Problems

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