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Workplace Bullying: Is it happening in your organization?

Workplace Bullying: Is it happening in your organization?

– Gayle Wiebe Oudeh

Bullying has long been identified as an issue in the schoolyard but those very same behaviours can continue on through adulthood and show up in the workplace. In fact, workplace bullying is widespread, incredibly destructive, and enormously costly to the well-being of individuals and organizations.

What is Workplace Bullying?

It is important to understand what workplace bullying is in order to recognize it and address it. While specific definitions vary, there are three key factors to bullying:

  1. It is a repeated action or behaviour.
  2. It is directed towards a specific worker or group of workers.
  3. It is intended to and/or it does make the target feel intimidated, upset, humiliated, or threatened.

Let’s look at each of these factors individually.

It is a repeated action or behaviour.

Bullying is an accumulation of incidences of negative, targeted behaviour. And it is this pattern of behaviour that is significant in identifying bullying. If you were to look at a single incident, in its own context, it may not appear to be of significance. In fact, it might look so insignificant that it would not be worthy of disciplinary action by the company or organization. But if you were to look at the same incident in the context of repeated, similar actions or behaviours, you would identify a pattern of behaviour designed to intimidate and/or humiliate the target.

Bullying, therefore, is not occasional rudeness or aggressive behaviour. These are singular, individual instances of poor behaviour that do not signify an ongoing pattern and so cannot be defined as bullying. In all working relationships, there are bound to be some differences of opinion, conflicts and problems. This is to be expected. But if, and when, the treatment of another person is offensive and repeated, then workplace bullying exists and must be addressed. It is important to look at the pattern of behaviour and the cumulative effect of those behaviours.

It is directed towards a specific worker or group of workers.

Bullying is targeted. Frequently, the bully targets someone he/she feels threatened by in some way. This sense of threat may include feelings of inadequacy, that the other individual is better at the job, or more well-liked by the boss and colleagues. The target may represent a group (i.e. female, minority, particular cultural group, particular sexual orientation, etc.) that the bully believes is a threat to his/her livelihood or well-being. Almost always, the bully’s desire is to exert some form of power or control over another person or group. This may or may not be a conscious decision on the part of the bully.

Workplace bullying is rarely physical although it can and does lead to physical violence in some instances. More often, it is as if the bully is waging some sort of negativity campaign against another individual or group. Much of this bullying behaviour is done out of eyesight or earshot of authority figures (if the authority figure is likely to confront the bully) or the target (if the target is likely to confront the bully). In fact, some individuals being bullied may not even be initially aware of the bullying. The bullying is done in such a secret and insidious manner that much damage is done before the target is aware that anything is happening behind their back. This is also why some employees may be hesitant to identify or address a colleague’s bullying behaviour as the target does not appear to be negatively impacted by it. Far too often, employees will say they did nothing about bullying behaviour they have witnessed because the target “seemed okay with it”.

It is intended to and/or it does make the target feel intimidated, upset, humiliated, or threatened.

It is important to note that there is a definite negative intention behind the bullying behaviour. The person exhibiting the bullying behaviour specifically targets an individual or group with the intention of exerting some sort of power and control over them. The type of power and control utilized by the bully makes the target feel victimized, belittled, intimidated, threatened, or humiliated.

In some circumstances, an individual may exhibit bullying behaviour but insist that their actions have absolutely no negative intentions. An example of this may be the “hard boss” who uses threats or certain forms of intimidation. They insist that they simply have a tough management style and only do so to ensure that their employees perform at their maximum potential. Since their intentions are positive (better performance) they believe they are not bullying. But it is important to recognize that bullying is “intended and/or it does make the target feel…” Even when the boss’ intentions are noble, if his/her actions result in an individual feeling humiliated, threated, or intimidated, and if the boss’ behaviour also matches the first two criteria (repeated and directed), then the boss is a workplace bully. Bullying is defined by the effect of the behaviour, not just the intent.

This is not to say that every time a supervisor disciplines an employee or gives them a performance appraisal, their behaviour is bullying. Work control and employee performance issues must be addressed by the supervisor – it is their job. So long as this is done in a constructive and objective manner, it is not bullying.


The Bullying Cycle

Bullying behaviour tends to follow a cyclical pattern. While it may seem that this would make it easier to identify and address, it is, in fact, one of the reasons that workplace bullying is so insidious.

  1. A person is bullied over a period of time.
  2. The person being bullied speaks out in some way and complains about the situation.
  3. The bully denies the bullying and often insists that they are, in fact, the victim. (Research shows that up to 70% of managers come out on the side of the bully at this point.)
  4. There is little evidence and often no witnesses, so it is one person’s word against the other’s.
  5. The target of the bullying behaviour is viewed as the “problem” because of his/her complaints.
  6. With lack of support from the organization, the target sees few options and leaves or is removed from his/her position.
  7. The bully finds a new target and the cycle begins again.


Creating a Bully-Free Workplace

Developing a safe and respectful work environment for all employees should be a top priority for all organizations. It’s good for business. When employees are satisfied with their work environment they are more productive, innovative and loyal. So, not only will they get more work done – they’ll do it better. Additionally, a positive work environment enhances the reputation of the organization – attracting both clients and top employees. People will want to work for your organization and do business with you.

Here’s what you can do.

Develop a bullying policy.

By now, most companies have a harassment policy and many assume that any bullying issues are covered by this policy. This is not necessarily the case. Bullying and harassment are not the same. If you rely on your harassment policy to deal with bullying issues you may find yourself stuck on loopholes and technicalities. Develop a policy that provides a clear definition of bullying and identifies specific steps that employees and supervisors can take in order to deal with bullying behaviour.

Ensure that there is a process for reporting incidences of bullying that doesn’t further victimize the target.

Reporting incidences of bullying is difficult. In fact, 40% of bullied individuals never report it. Generally, this is either because the target is concerned about retaliation or lack of action on the part of the company. If you want people to report incidences of bullying so that they can be dealt with appropriately, you must ensure that those who report it will not experience further bullying by doing so.

Take complaints of bullying seriously.

Unfortunately, some complaints of bullying may initially sound insignificant or petty. It is important to really listen to what the complainant is saying. Ask questions to determine if bullying has taken place. Ask questions such as: How frequently or over what time period has this behaviour occurred? Who has experienced/witnessed this behaviour? What has been the result of this behaviour? And don’t wait for a formal complaint to be submitted before you start checking it out. Any rumours, innuendos, or signs of bullying must be explored to determine what’s going on – and it needs to be addressed quickly. This sends the message to all employees that the organization takes issues of bullying seriously and that it is committed to creating a bully-free workplace.

Develop awareness throughout the organization on what bullying is and what can be done to prevent it and address it.

It is important to have a bullying policy but it is equally important that all employees know and understand what that policy is. Make sure that all staff know what behaviours the company defines as bullying, as well as the company’s commitment to creating a bully-free workplace. Clearly identify options available to target bullying.

Provide staff and management with skills and support to challenge bullying behaviour.

It’s not easy to confront a bully. And it can backfire if you are not entirely prepared and don’t have the proper communication skills. In fact, you run the risk of further escalating the bullying if you simply encourage employees to challenge bullying behaviour without providing them with the skills they need to do so. Employees and managers need to know what to expect when confronting a bully, how to focus on the bullying behaviour, and how to insist on and monitor change.

Anyone who challenges bullying behaviour in the workplace also needs to know that they are supported by their organization. They need to know that their concerns will be taken seriously, that they will not experience retaliation, and that there will be consequences for the bullying behaviour.

Provide support for the target of bullying.

Bullying can have a significant psychological and physical effect on the target. This may include a variety of stress-induced illnesses and symptoms. The target may have experienced bullying for a significant period of time resulting in self-doubt about his/her abilities or value to the organization. Reassurance and support may be required in order for the target to get back to optimum work performance.

Provide assistance to the bully to change and modify behaviour.

When confronting bullies about their behaviour, it is important to give them an opportunity to change. Of course, there are exceptions. If the bullying has escalated to the extreme of physical violence, this becomes an issue for police and legal authorities to deal with. But, for most bullying situations, it is appropriate to provide coaching or counselling to the bully as well as the target of the bullying. Through processes such as coaching or counselling, the bully can explore the causes of his/her behaviour and develop new and more effective workplace behaviours.

Follow-up is an important aspect of the behaviour modification process. Many bullies will be resistant to change or may modify their behaviour for a short period after being “caught” but then revert back to their old ways. Individuals who have exhibited bullying behaviour must be monitored over an extended period of time to ensure true behavioural change.

Demonstrate the organization’s commitment to creating a bully-free environment.

Company leaders and top executives need to be role models. An organization can never effectively address bullying amongst the employees if some members of senior management are themselves perceived as bullies. The kind of behaviour expected of all employees needs to be demonstrated from the top down.

Focus on both on-the-job behaviours and achievement of outcomes when evaluating performance.

Some companies will turn a blind eye to how employees achieve results so long as those results meet or exceed expectations. This is frequently an indication to the bully that his/her actions are justified because the company only looks at results. And many organizations hesitate to reprimand or discipline high-performing bullies because they are afraid of losing their top performer.

Companies need to keep their eye on the bigger picture when it comes to bullying. Bullying in the workplace results in an atmosphere of fear and negativity. No one works to their maximum potential in this kind of environment. If the bully manager is getting good results from employees, then a motivating and encouraging manager will get exceptional results from those employees. Creating a bully-free workplace is truly good for business.

Conduct workplace assessments.

Know what’s going on in your organization, what employees are thinking, how satisfied they are with their work environment. Look for patterns of sick and stress leave, turnover, and workplace conflicts. All of these may be indicators of workplace bullying. Remember, almost half of employees who experience bullying don’t report it.

If you want to create a bully-free workplace, you need to remain vigilant in your awareness that it can and does happen. Look for it and address it.

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