Creating a Zero-Tolerance Response to Bullying at Work

What HR practitioners say and do following a complaint about team or one-to-one bullying is important for creating a zero-tolerance culture.

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Following a complaint about one-to-one or team bullying, the actions of the HR practitioner investigating the complaint have an important role to play in creating a zero-tolerance culture.  Those actions - the work done to investigate the allegation and the processes put into place as a consequence - are the signals the organisation sends to those employees who use bullying behaviour, those who are tempted to, and those who are targeted by or adversely affected by bullies.

If too little is done, or take ineffective action, people using bullying behaviour may be encouraged they will get away with it (Rayner and McIvor, 2008).  The message sent to those affected by bullying is that the organisation is not willing to confront the wrong-doing. To those who are being targeted it may feel like their welfare is not important to their employer.

In the worst cases, the organisation’s inability to confront bullying effectively could result in lowered levels of goodwill, endeavour and commitment among employees. Talented people may leave to work in a safer environment.  Those who remain may work to lower standards than before the bullying commenced, as their energy and personal resources are diverted away from their work towards coping with the pressure they are under.

One of the first questions in an HR practitioner's mind following a complaint may be about whether the behavior which has come to their attention is aggressive but non-bullying behavior or whether it constitutes bullying.  I take the view that bullying is about power: one colleague attempts to remove power from another and retain that control for themselves.  There are three forms of power that a bully could target:

·         Personal power: the inner confidence, self-belief and self-esteem of the target.

·         Reputational influence: the target’s credibility in the eyes of their co-workers and managers.

·         Organisational status: the target’s role and the authority that goes with performing that role ably.

A skilled bully will target all three forms of power simultaneously and can leave their target reeling as they try to cope with concurrent assaults on their inner self, their relationships and their work (Oade, 2017). 

Not every incident involving aggression at work necessarily constitutes workplace or team bullying (Oade, 2015).  Bullying is always about power, but aggression is not necessarily so. Imagine an employee getting angry, stomping up to a team colleague in a corridor and, in an act which is out of character, speaking to them in an openly derogatory and irate manner.  The HR practitioner may consider their behaviour to be unprofessional and unacceptable, and want to take action. Or they may take the view that it is an unfortunate way to handle an interaction at work, but a one-off, and not evidence of on-going malign intent. 


But what if the incident rendered the team colleague speechless with shock, reeling internally.  Here, the colleague experiences the aggressive, intemperate outburst as harmful and debilitating, regardless of whether it was actually motivated by an intention to bully. The employee may dread the prospect of working with their team colleague again, worried that they will be powerless to prevent a similar attack in the future.  In which case, they would regard the behaviour as debilitating, harmful and evidence of a destructive intent whether or not it was, strictly speaking, an incident of bullying as opposed to aggression at work. 


Creating a zero-tolerance culture involves taking effective steps to hold employees who use aggressive or bullying behaviour accountable for their actions, while also offering support to those who have been adversely affected by them.  The angry colleague in the above scenario has demonstrated a need to learn what triggers their aggression and to develop a set of effective self-management skills. The colleague attacked in the corridor needs support to help them detoxify from the experience, learn assertive ways to handle aggression and feel comfortable enough to work productively once more alongside their team colleague.  Taking seriously an incident of inappropriate behaviour, even if there is doubt about whether it meets the strict definition of bullying, is key to sending out the unequivocal message that untoward behavior will not be condoned, and to creating a zero-tolerance culture.

Oade, A. (2015). Free Yourself from Workplace Bullying: Become Bully-Proof and Regain Control of Your Life. Oxford, England:  Flourish

Oade, A. (2017). Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive. Oxford, England:  Flourish

Rayner, C. & McIvor, K. (2008). Research Report on Dignity at Work Project. Portsmouth University Business School, Portsmouth University, England


Learning how to use the influence available to you under pressure is a key goal for people vulnerable to being successfully targeted. Here are some bully-proofing resources:

  • Bullying in Teams: How to Survive It and Thrive for input on how to tackle bullying in your team, stand up safely and effectively for a team colleague who is bullied in front of you, prevent a bully from controlling you and your team, and develop a bully-proof mindset.
  • for dree audio and written downloads on how to detoxify from, recover from and combat bullying, and other challenging workplace behavior. 


Aryanne Oade

chartered psychologist, executive coach, author and publisher, Oade Associates Ltd

Hello and welcome to my blog. I specialize in handling challenging workplace dynamics, successfully working from the premise that the additional resources you seek are already within you. My aim is to be a catalyst so you can turn areas where you feel under-resourced or vulnerable into skills and strengths, become resilient in the face of adversity, and develop a life and work experience you are passionate about. Working from the evidence-base of psychology, and over twenty-five years’ experience, clients tell me they experience my coaching and books as insightful, practical, non-judgmental and empathic. My work on recovery from bullying and bully-proofing has been featured in leading publications such as The Independent, Irish Independent (Sunday), Psychologies, Good Housekeeping and Marie Claire. Learn more at