Dealing with a bullying complaint

May 17, 2021 | Disputes

Although you’d always try to prevent or avoid bullying if at all possible, it may still happen, and how you deal with it can make a big difference to the impact it has on your business. Follow these steps to address a bullying complaint in your team as effectively as you can.

1. Take it seriously

Regardless of whether the incident or incidents being described may sound trivial, or may have been perceived wrongly, take any complaint of bullying seriously. People rarely complain about being bullied unless they genuinely feel that is what is happening, and there may be more to it once you look into it anyway.

Taking any complaint seriously and following a suitable procedure will also be very reassuring to anyone else who might be feeling bullied themselves. Confidence that their complaint will be taken seriously is vital for someone worried about making a fuss.

2. Deal with it as swiftly as possible

Bringing a complaint about bullying is often something a victim has done as the culmination of a long period of feeling treated badly, and is also something they’ve probably felt very worried about doing, particularly if it involves their line manager. Reassure them that the issue will be dealt with as quickly as possible, and make sure that happens. If there is a delay for any reason, explain that to them and keep them informed about developments.

3. Find someone suitable to investigate

Someone suitable means someone who hasn’t been involved previously, and someone able to handle the situation sensitively and appropriately. If there is no one internal available who fits this, an external HR consultant may be appropriate, or a specialist investigator into this type of issue.

4. Investigate carefully

Any witnesses or potential witnesses should be spoken to, and surrounding circumstances and background looked into, as well as both the victim and the alleged bully asked for their points of view. Patterns of behaviour, patterns of absence and historical issues may all be relevant.

5. Confidentiality

Witnesses to bullying can be reluctant to come forward, perhaps fearing repercussions, or not wanting to take sides. Although it may not be possible to keep everything that is said by witnesses completely confidential, they should be reassured that as far as possible, this will be done. Statements might need to be put to the alleged bully, but could for example be anonymised.

6. Suspend if necessary

It may not be possible to investigate fully with both parties remaining at work. Depending on the circumstances, this can be dealt with in a number of ways. One of the employees involved could be moved to another department or office, if this is possible, or alternatively one could be asked to stay at home on full pay. If this is necessary it should be for as short a time as possible, and it must be made clear that any suspension is not a disciplinary measure or in any way prejudicial to the outcome of the investigation.

The person bringing a complaint about bullying may well indicate that they would prefer not to return to work in their normal role while their complaint is being dealt with, in which case allowing them to remain at home on full pay may solve this problem.

7. Support from outside

Because bullying often takes place within the line management relationship, or in a situation where the bully has isolated the victim leaving them feeling without support internally, seeking support for them from outside the business may be appropriate. You could also look at providing counselling, possibly via an Employee Assistance Programme if you have one.

8. Mediation or discipline?

Assuming an investigation indicates that there has been bullying, there will need to be a decision made about how to rectify the situation. Mediation can be very useful in helping all involved to move on, however it’s not right for every situation. In circumstances where there is perhaps a misunderstanding involved, or a disagreement, and perhaps where the two parties are broadly the same level of seniority, mediation may work.

However where the alleged bully is more senior, or in a position of power over the victim, either formal or otherwise), mediation may not be appropriate. Any disciplinary action should be conducted in line with your usual procedure, and it is also appropriate to ask the victim what outcome he or she would like.

9. Aftermath

Where there has been disciplinary action, or mediation was not successful or appropriate, there may be residual difficulties that need to be managed to allow people to move on. Don’t just issue a warning to the bully and leave it there, instead consider how the situation can be managed to avoid a repeat and to ensure both parties can move forward.


If you think you have a problem with workplace bullying and would like some advice, do get in touch.