Upwards bullying: reversing the norm

13 November 2019 | Applicable law: England and Wales


'Upwards bullying' is a term used to describe the bullying of a manager by his or her staff. It is far less common than vertical or horizontal bullying and has only been recognised by occupational psychologists since early 2000. In one British study, 6.7% of respondents considered that they had been bullied by their staff . This contrasts with a different (and therefore not entirely comparable) set of statistics from the TUC which identified that nearly a third of workers had experienced workplace bullying.

In recent years, we have seen a rise in cases of upwards bullying. However, it is rarely talked about or discussed and is not mentioned at all in the ACAS guidance on the subject. We suspect that upwards bullying is even more rarely reported than other forms of bullying as managers perceive it as an admission of failure in respect of their management style. The effect on the individual who is bullied is the same whether they are a manager or a junior member of staff: it causes enormous stress and sometimes the individual can suffer long term damage to their health and well- being.

We believe that the reason we have seen a rise in upwards bullying cases amongst our clients is that it has been made easier by the emergence of various forms of swift and private electronic communication, allowing disgruntled employees to band together and find safety in numbers in a way that would have been much harder before mobile telephones.

The causes of upwards bullying can be varied. Sometimes it arises out of swift and repeated organisational change which employees resent and for which they blame their manager. Sometimes employees do not accept a new manager who has been appointed over their heads or is brought in from the outside. Often the manager has been inserted into a role to which one of the employees had aspired. Sometimes there is a racial or gender dimension, whereby say a female or black manager is not accepted by the team that reports to them. Sometimes the manager has become isolated either geographically or in organisational terms. This may be because they have insufficient peer support or senior support.

Where a manager identifies upwards bullying it will need careful investigation. As an employer or HR manager, here are a few things you will need to consider:

  • be open to the idea that upwards bullying may exist;
  • consider the context in which this might have happened;
  • investigate whether employees have banded together to share derogatory views on the manager in private social media apps;
  • challenge the manager and the employee appropriately and fairly on their evidence;
  • be prepared to open disciplinary investigations against employees who upwardly bully.

Upwards bullying is often made more complex by the fact that the bullies may themselves be raising grievances against the manager. It takes a highly skilled investigator to unravel what has happened and pin point the true issues, so keep an open mind, consider all of the above points and seek advice where necessary.  

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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