Workplace Bullying Matters - In Your Own Words

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I've written and spoken out a lot this year about workplace mental health, which has meant I have read and heard a lot in exchange. LinkedIn has been a great platform to have some of these conversations, exchange ideas and discover like-minded professionals with a passion for change. In this article, I want to discuss the issue people have said to me is the most urgent to address.

Workplace Bullying is your Priority Issue

I've found that the number one issue people want to speak out about is workplace bullying - this is a well recognised 'psychosocial hazard' as I have written about before (see Mental Health - the intersection of People, Work Design and Workplace). Of course, it's the people who have experienced or witnessed bullying firsthand and been upset by it (and rightly so) that want to speak out. (I've yet to hear someone admit to having been a bully, recognised the error of their ways and taken steps to address their issue). Here are some of the things you have said:

"I very much doubt if society realises just how much damage is being occasioned to good people through bullying, harassment and other forms of intimidatory conduct. It is everywhere, and disturbingly so in government bodies and agencies who boast about how great their policies are. Policies are not worth a pinch of proverbial unless agencies have the intestinal fortitude to tackle the problem, rather than hide behind convenient hurdles in proving matters."
"Whenever there is a bullying problem, there is obviously a company culture problem.... A company that does not address the bullying is just as guilty of it. Bullying, just like ... any form of abuse, is not only unacceptable but a crime against humanity."
"Quite often covert bullying is perpetrated by managers, setting the culture for other staff in the organisation..making it very difficult to hold anyone accountable for their actions."

What I can't (won't) share with you are the confidential messages that people have shared with me about their experiences of bullying. Many of these people have ended up leaving their organisations because the situation became intolerable to them and affected their mental health. Given that about 90% of workplace bullying goes unreported, the very few cases of workplace bullying that end up in court are clearly the tip of the iceberg, but provide some insights into what can take place. The victims who 'win' such cases are rarely fully compensated for the trauma they have been through, including the process to reach a settlement. The lawyer in one such recent case (see More than $1 million paid out for workplace bullying) stated:

"It's not enough to have a Code of Conduct sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere, they [companies] need to have an anti-bullying policy in place that staff know about and know what to do in all situations in the workplace and particularly what to do if someone comes forward and says I have been bullied." (lawyer)

Let's be clear what's Bullying and what isn't

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Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or a group of workers that creates a risk to health and safety (Fairwork Ombudsman website). Bullying is associated with elevated stress (leading to anxiety, depression, strain, burnout, post-traumatic stress and physical health complaints). It also leads to reduced job satisfaction and commitment, plus increased absenteeism and intentions to leave.

By contrast, a manager can make decisions about poor performance, take disciplinary action, and direct and control the way work is carried out without being a bully. Reasonable management action that’s carried out in a reasonable way is not bullying. Management action that isn't carried out in a reasonable way may constitute bullying. Let me illustrate with an example I witnessed.

A colleague of mine was continually being challenged by her manager for poor performance and poor attitude, without there being any real evidence of this. My colleague was actually working with me in a cross-disciplinary team I was leading; I had no issue with her standard of work or behaviour and was never consulted by her manager about it. The ongoing disagreement between her and her manager caused stress, and led to anxiety and a reluctance to come to work, but she remained committed to working on the project we were collaborating on. Her manager was known to be 'difficult' with many people (including me) and had been challenged by peers to change behaviour, but refused to listen, make amends or endeavour to change. In the end, my colleague was sacked by this manager for her 'poor performance' and the manager believed they did the right thing.

Having policies and procedures that govern management decisions and actions is prudent for all organisations. A Code of Conduct that reinforces desired behaviours and ways of working is also useful. However, without a robust and fair way of applying these at all levels of an organisation, plus a willngness to do so, they become mere documents without meaning. 

Workplace Bullying is prevalent

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According to the People at Work research project (published in May 2016), 7% (roughly 1 in 14) of Australian workers experience bullying on a daily, weekly or monthly basis and an equivalent number witness it. In addition, 32% of workers experience occasional bullying and 43% witness it. The sectors most at risk (surprisingly to me) are the arts and recreation sector, plus the healthcare and welfare support sector. Based on the project's findings, the most common forms of bullying are listed below. Of these, the top six are equally prevalent:

  1. ridicule or being put down
  2. verbal abuse
  3. persistent and unjustified criticism
  4. humiliation through gestures
  5. gossip or false, malicious rumours
  6. exclusion or isolation from workplace activities
  7. sabotage of other's work
  8. offensive messages via telephone, written or electronic means
  9. threats of punishment for no reason

Whenever I have been trained in anti-bullying and harassment policies and procedures at work, the focus was usually on the more extreme forms of bullying, such as sexual harassment, persistent criticism and threats of punishment. However, as Heads Up points out, 'passive bullying' (items 5 to 8 in the list above) can be harder to spot and be overlooked as a result (Why passive bullying is still bullying).

Data Source: People at Work research project

Data Source: People at Work research project

Why People engage in Bullying

The People at Work research project revealed that the main sources of workplace bullying are co-workers (35%), supervisors (25%) and external customers (14%). Most often bullying is caused by inter-personal disagreements and frictions between colleagues arising from conflicts in personal style, value and norms, coupled with low co-worker support (i.e., colleagues not stepping in to address the issue).

While I am no psychologist, it is clear to me that the attitudes of a bully need challenging head on, since we are not talking about a one-off incident, but a pattern of behaviour that is clearly inappropriate and harmful. It seems to me the heart of the matter is the bully is focusing on their own wellbeing at the cost of others. They may be seeking to dominate, to gain power, or to take revenge for some imagined injustice, etc. All of this is about putting their self first without regard or respect for the other person (or people). 

We need to have Zero Tolerance for Bullies

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Let's be clear, workplace bullying can be illegal (see Workplace Bullying and Bullying and the Law by ReachOut.com). However, that shouldn't mean people have to rely on the law to exercise their right to work in an environment free from physical, mental and emotional (psychosocial) harm.

"If you're being bullied for reasons like age, gender, disability, religion or sexual preference, the bullying could be discriminatory, which is illegal. Violence, or threats of violence, are always illegal." ReachOut.com

It is obvious to me that bullies pollute the social cohesion in a workplace by the effects they have not only on their target(s), but also on their co-workers who witness their acts and are affected too. I believe this has a knock-on effect on team productivity, levels of creativity and innovation, plus employee loyalty and commitment across the board. Therefore, it is not for the sake of individuals being bullied, but the whole organisation that bullying should be addressed in all its forms.

"A zero-tolerance approach to bullying in all its forms – from easy-to-spot incidents to more subtle behaviour – is a characteristic of all mentally healthy workplaces, regardless of their size and industry." Heads Up

How to Deal with Bullies

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Quite often bullies rely on others to back them up, or to passively turn a blind eye. Therefore, we all need to stand for what is right and bring bullies to account if we want to create mentally healthier workplaces and more resilient teams.

By dealing with the small stuff (like incidental insults, ignoring somebody, taking credit for someone else's idea or work, or excluding someone from the office in group - see Why rudeness at work is contagious and difficult to stop) we can therefore avoid a snowball effect that ultimately allows bullying to take place routinely.

If we can be outraged by bullying in schools, and the devastating effects it can have on individuals and the whole community, why aren't we as responsive when we witness it happening in our own workplaces? It takes no less courage to stand up to a bully in the workplace as an adult than it does as a school student, and it is far more effective if it is a collective effort, rather than letting individuals 'tough it out' or 'stand up for themselves'. I believe people who respond firmly and fairly in support of their colleagues can prevail and bring about positive change.

There are many online resources to help organisations establish a culture of zero tolerance towards bullying (see Selected Resources below). Some guidelines that I particularly liked because they speak of attitudes and actions everyone can participate in are described in the article What happens when you fail to stop workplace bullying?:

  1. A respectful culture is key to prevention
  2. Culture starts from the top
  3. Action is necessary
  4. Consequences are essential
  5. Acting early matters
  6. Tough love can work

If this article resonates with you, please like and share it. Even better, let's start a conversation. I am really curious and interested to hear your reactions. Please either leave a comment, or message/email me (jokirker@gmail.com). Thank you.

Selected Resources