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Help & Information

Upward Bullying

When we talk about bullying behaviour, it is usually in the context of children and young people – playground bullying. But of course, we are aware that it takes place in the workplace as well. In fact, research from the TUC shows us that one in three adults report being bullied at work.

In early 2000, occupational therapists recognised another form of bullying behaviour, Upward Bullying. This is bullying by a member (or members) of staff towards their manager. In one British study, 6.7% of respondents considered they had been bullied by their staff.

Examples of this type of bullying can be:

  • Showing continued disrespect
  • Refusing to complete tasks
  • Talking behind their manager’s back and/or spreading rumours
  • Doing things that make their manager seem unskilled or unable to do their job properly
  • Unrealistic demands by staff

As with a lot of bullying behaviour, especially in adults, Upward Bullying is probably even less reported than other forms of bullying as managers may perceive it as an admission of failure in respect of their management style. Also, rather than exhibiting outright rudeness or disrespect, those who display bullying behaviour towards their managers are likely to turn to more insidious behaviour, so their wrongdoing is harder to challenge.

As with all forms of bullying behaviour, the causes of Upward Bullying can be varied. Sometimes it arises out of organisational change which employees resent and for which they blame their manager. Perhaps employees do not accept a new manager who has been appointed over their heads or is brought in from the outside. Maybe the manager has been inserted into a role to which one of the employees had aspired. It can also occur if the manager has become isolated either geographically or in organisational terms.

An ‘Upward Bully’ rarely acts alone and this makes the situation more difficult and far more toxic. The twentieth century’s explosion of technology has been unprecedented and has supported the rise of cases in Upward Bullying. The emergence of various forms of electronic communication and social media platforms enables disgruntled employees to group together, finding ‘safety in numbers’, in a way that would have been much harder before mobile phones and other technologies existed.

Despite cases of Upward Bullying increasing, it is rarely talked about or discussed. The ACAS guidance on bullying doesn’t mention it at all. Therefore, it is important that all HR professionals add Upward Bullying’ to their vocabulary and policies. Organisations need to recognise that Upward Bullying happens, provide training around it and they need to start learning from it. It’s important not to make the assumption that Upward Bullying is about interpersonal conflict. It’s not.

The effect on a manager who is bullied is the same as anyone else going through the same thing. It causes stress and can have a devastating effect on a person’s health and well-being.

A failure to effectively manage an incident of Upward Bullying, or bullying in general, can have wider effects on staff and the culture of the workplace.

Dealing with Upward Bullying

Like all cases of bullying behaviour, Upward Bullying needs to be investigated to unravel what has happened. Ensure lines of communication are kept open and develop an open and honest culture within the workplace where those who are bullied feel empowered to speak up – regardless of their position or status within the company.

When an incident of Upward Bullying is identified and reported, here are a few things you should consider:

  • Acknowledge the complaint and take it seriously
  • Consider the context in which this might have happened
  • Investigate whether employees have colluded to share derogatory views on the manager using forms of technology
  • Challenge the employee(s) appropriately and fairly based on the evidence presented to you
  • Be prepared to open disciplinary investigations against employees who upwardly bully
  • Provide relevant support for the individual who is on the receiving end of the bullying behaviour

An investigation of this kind can be complex so using a highly skilled investigator to unravel what has happened and pin point the true issues is important. Review all evidence thoroughly, keep an open mind and seek advice where necessary.


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Need to talk?

If you are being bullied or are concerned about someone who is, you can receive help and support from one of our trained Mentors through our e-mentoring service.

If you would like a Mentor to email you, please contact: mentorsonline@bulliesout.com

If you would rather speak to someone over the telephone, you can call Childline on: 0800 1111

For any community-related issues, such as anti-social behaviour, we would suggest contacting your landlord, the local police or your local environmental health department (where applicable), as we are unable to deal with these types of complaints.