Bullying in the early years workforce

Bullying can happen in any workplace and can have a real impact on staff well-being.

It has a negative effect on staff morale, which in turn can impact the children they are caring for.

The early years sector does not have a particular problem with bullying at work compared with other industries, but given the current recruitment and retention crisis facing nurseries, it’s vital that employers focus on prevention.

Across all workplaces, about two in five employees claim to have been bullied at some point in their professional careers. If this is left to fester without action to prevent it escalating, bullying can soon bring about absences, grievances, disciplinaries and resignations.

What constitutes bullying?

NDNA’s advisers and partners, Citation Professional Services defines bullying as unwarranted and unwanted behaviour. It is often someone who is perceived as “weaker” or more vulnerable who is the victim of bullying. They begin to feel intimidated and mistreated.

There are various reasons why one employee would begin to “pick on” a colleague. It could be due to age differences or a promotion. There could be a history of unpleasantness between them or one person could simply take a dislike to the other. Sometimes there is no reason – or the intimidator doesn’t realise their particular behaviour is upsetting.

Bullying also does not need to be in person – we also need to consider e-communications and social media as much as we would bullying “in person”. This is especially true if nursery practitioners have a closed chat group so others can also see the unkind or hurtful comments being made – cyber-bullying is a wider problem that goes beyond the workplace. Also, consider the information given in All Staff emails – does this contain criticisms or inappropriate comments?

It’s vital that employers and managers can recognise signs of bullying in all its forms. This includes rumours about a member of staff no matter how trivial they may seem – if they make someone feel belittled or undermined, it could constitute bullying. But have you considered overbearing criticism of a member of staff? Especially if that is being done with the knowledge of the staff team. Singling out an employee, applying unfair or inconsistent practices to them and even playing practical jokes – all these can be potentially harmful.

How can you discourage bullying?

Having clear policies in place is essential. Once your staff team is clear about the definition of bullying, think about your discrimination and harassment policy and make sure all staff know exactly what this contains and why.

Include in your policy that harassment is a discriminatory act and also a criminal offence. Outline possible examples that could take place in your nursery. Make it clear that bullying is largely defined by the sufferer.

Your discrimination policy must state that all job offers and promotions will be made through merit and anyone with a disability will be given reasonable help to enable them to carry out their normal duties effectively.

When you become aware of a case of bullying – either you have a complaint from a staff member or you see or hear something in the workplace – you must handle it swiftly and fairly.

Citation advises us that nurseries should have a clearly defined process in place for dealing with bullying. Make sure you take the complaint seriously – reassure the complainant that you will investigate it thoroughly. If you can, try to adhere to the complainant’s wishes in how they wish the complaint to be dealt with. If the complaint is about a manager, it must be passed onto a more senior manager who is not implicated in the matter.

Make sure you act with sensitivity and encourage the victim to give you as much detail as possible. Make notes to avoid asking them to repeat things they find difficult to talk about and also so you have a clear and concise record of the disclosure. Try and determine a course of action with them.

Be supportive and never dismiss what an employee is telling you. Make sure they know they are speaking to you in confidence and treat it as a confidential matter.

Your next course of action depends on the case details, but we always advise our members to seek legal advice straight away because at this stage, dealing with a complaint in the wrong way could lead to expensive claims for constructive unfair dismissal in an Employment Tribunal or a personal claim in the Civic Courts. NDNA members have a free legal helpline they can call.

Don’t just reach for the formal approach though – sometimes just having a quiet word with the perpetrator may be enough to prevent any further action. If this simply isn’t appropriate, would Acas or a similar mediator be able to support you?

Let’s take it one stage further though. Don’t just create an anti-bullying culture in your workplace – develop a positive, happy workplace that makes time for its employees and rewards dedication and hard work. Have an open door policy and make sure your staff know they can talk to you about their feelings whenever they need to.

Lead by example by showing kindness and flexibility for your staff whenever possible. For example, if you can let them attend key events – such as sports day or a school play – this will keep your workforce happier. Take a fair approach across all your staff. Try to organise social events or even a fun quiz for your staff meetings.

Keeping people happy is not as hard as you think and will hopefully result in the kind of workplace where staff feel engaged and work well as a team together.

*3gem questioned a nationally representative sample of 2,000 working adults aged 18 and over between 11th and 14th July 2017.

This NDNA article was originally featured in NMT Magazine’s January 2020 edition. 

  • bullying
  • bullying in the workplace
  • support children
  • support staff
  • well-being

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