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Remarks by Meghan Markle’s lawyers about the use of the term bully may resonate for those working to prevent, resolve or investigate workplace conflict.

The term bully –
“gets used very, very casually” and
“is used very freely and it’s a very, very damaging term as we know, particularly for career women”
 – Jenny Afia, Meghan Markle’s lawyer

The damaging impact of the term bully

The damaging impact of the term bully is not only about career women, it is a workplace-wide issue, with the potential to affect anyone, at any level.

In my own experience, the use of the term bully in the workplace has never, without exception, helped to resolve the situation. On the contrary, accusing a co-worker or manager of bullying serves only to escalate the situation.

Using general, unspecified language to describe negative workplace behaviour and labels to characterise people, will more than likely, create an immediate barrier to early and informal resolution.

As a label that generalises unspecified negative behaviours / conduct, it is hard to see how the term bully can adequately reflect the complexity, or otherwise, of a situation. It is also unlikely that a person accused of workplace bullying will say “yes, I’m a bully”. Indeed, given the connotations of the term bully, defensive and robust deniability may be understandable.

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An allegation of bullying, alongside the defensive reaction of the person accused, can obstruct attempts to identify the problematic behaviours or practices at the heart of the situation.

With some workers aggrieved by behaviours towards them, and others defensive having been labelled a bully, the scope to resolve the situation early and informally is significantly diminished. Formal procedures can become the only available avenue, increasing the risk of costly and ongoing disruption.

The term bully can bring an avalanche of disruption into everyday business including investigations, witnesses, reports, formal hearings, legal advice. The need for confidentiality is heightened, bystanders become anxious and sensitive to the tense and suspicious climate, fearful they might do or say the wrong thing, or get drawn into a complex and distressing situation.

Problems Using the Term Bully

No-one wants to be labelled a bully
Raises barriers to positive change
Reduces the potential to rebuild the relationship
Increases the risk of formal procedures
Creates a tense and suspicious working environment

Resolving Issues Early and Informally

Workers with the knowledge, skills and confidence to raise their concerns early and informally can create a workplace culture with a healthy respect for difference. A healthier workplace will encompass the following

Clear and consistent language
Unambiguous policies and procedures
Confidence and skills to raise concerns early

Click here to learn how The Workforce Builder can help you create a healthy respect for difference within your workplace. 


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