ARTICLES

Bullying and the Workplace

Victoria Morrissey
Counsellor & Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Workplace bullying can come at great cost to the victim of bullying as well as to the organisation where they are employed. For some individuals, workplace bullying can be a traumatic experience from which they do not recover, with workplace bullying seriously impacting their career plans in their chosen occupation or industry as well affecting their intimate relationships and friendships inside and outside of the workplace.

The cost to an organisation can also be significant. Good employees may be lost and others who are an asset to the organisation can be affected indirectly by workplace bullies. When someone is being bullied it can have a rippling effect through teams whose members may feel helpless to speak up (especially if the bully is a manager or a person of authority). They may worry that they will be next to be targeted or decide that the culture within the organisation is unhealthy and leave without disclosing their true reasons for fear of not receiving a good reference. In these situations the workplace bully remains to rule the roost and is in effect rewarded for their bullying behaviour as they get to continue causing harm within the organisation. The cost of a team not working to its full potential, absenteeism, recruiting and retraining of new team members when an employee leaves, are all significant losses to an organisation.

The development of effective policies and procedures to deal with Workplace Bullying is beneficial to organisations and their employees, providing a healthy and progressive culture and a physically and psychologically safe working environment.

Statistics
Approximately one in six people are bullied at work; in some industries the figure is higher, ranging from 25%, 50% to 97% (Duncan and Riley study).

What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying is a consistent personalised attack on an individual aiming to emotionally and psychologically punish. It involves creating a dynamic with an individual or colleague which results in lowering their self esteem and self confidence. The workplace bully actively seeks to remove power from the individual and undermine their competence to effectively carry out their role within the organisation, whilst damaging their reputation.

The intentions of the workplace bully are generally to:

  • Lower self esteem
  • Reduce self confidence
  • Damage their professional reputation (i.e. setting them up to fail on projects that they are responsible for or taking actions that result in their quality of work being lowered)
  • Damage their personal reputation (i.e. making comments to peers which influence their opinion of the individual or discredit the individual as a means of removing their existing support within the organisation)
  • Isolate and control (often to make themselves look better and appear more competent and important)

Some bullying tactics

  • Name calling or using a nickname that the individual finds offensive either behind their back or to their face
  • Discussing a colleagues performance or character with the purpose of manipulating or influencing other colleagues to think negatively of the individual
  • Deliberately and/or loudly making negative comments, pointing out mistakes or reprimanding the individual with the aim of discrediting them publicly
  • Being verbally aggressive or intimidating
  • Interfering with personal possessions
  • Using practical jokes or other behaviour to deliberately humiliate or offend
  • Offloading work or assigning an unreasonable workload with the intention of setting them up to fail
  • Arranging meetings purposely at times that the individual is unavailable or excluding them from meetings which will ultimately affect their work performance
  • Excluding or withholding information regarding social events

How does it affect the individual?
Being subjected to workplace bullying can be a devastating experience. Often initially there is a lot of self blame and loss of confidence. The subtlety of some bullying can leave the victim debilitated and isolated unsure of what is real and what is imagined (especially when the bully display's passive aggressive behaviour). Being the victim of a workplace bully affects not only the individual in the workplace environment but flows on to impacting their home life too. If they are highly dependent on their job in order to survive or support a family, the feeling of being trapped contributes to their self esteem plummeting. The situation may become so overwhelming that in severe cases, the victim of a workplace bully may end up isolating themselves from support (family and/or friends) outside of the workplace and may even experience suicidal thoughts.

What is the impact on the organisation?
Often complaints that are made to management regarding workplace bullies or bullying behaviour relate to incidents that management are already aware of. Bullying is often trivialised as 'personality clashes' or 'miscommunication'. The costs associated with Bullying in relation to employee turnover, retraining, HR support, absenteeism, work quality and the effectiveness of teams in the workplace are significant. The organisation also has a duty of care to its employees to seriously investigate not only reports of workplace bullying but suspicion of workplace bullying too.

What can you do as the employer of a workplace bully?

  • Identify the behaviour for what it is
  • Confront the behaviour and be aware that the victim maybe full of shame and self doubt and some may struggle to be assertive and to share their experiences for fear of further shame or humiliation
  • Ensure that employees, managers and HR are skilled in addressing and handling these situations
  • Take steps to ensure that victims or witnesses are not victimised further for whistle blowing
  • Organise counselling for the victim, the bully and other staff if necessary. It is beneficial for the counselling to be conducted by the same person or organisation. Not only does this provide a clearer picture of the bullying report or incident, it can also provide valuable information for the organisation regarding the number, nature and extent of bullying.

What can the individual do if they feel bullied in the workplace?

  • Investigate to see if your employer has a workplace bullying policy or reporting procedure
  • Keep a diary and document all incidents with the bully including what you have done to try and address it or handle it yourself
  • Speak to someone you trust about what is going on (friend, family member or counsellor)
  • Seek out someone within the company who may be able to support you in making your complaint formal
  • If the situation does not change once you have spoken to your manager or made a complaint you could contact: Australian Human Rights Commission to obtain advice or to make a complaint about discrimination, harassment and bullying covered by anti-discrimination laws
  • The union representing your industry who can provide you with information and options in relation to your rights

The benefits of Counselling

  • Counselling provides individuals who feel that they are being or have been bullied, a safe non judgemental environment where they have opportunity to explore their responses, reactions and behaviour in order to gain an understanding of what is occurring.
  • Counselling can also assist individuals who are feeling bullied, to develop strategies so that they are able to increase their self support and awareness and make decisions and choices regarding their options in managing the situation.

NOTE: If you are an employer it is important that both sides of a bullying complaint are investigated.

If you would like to learn more about Workplace Bullying please contact Victoria.

References:
Managing Workplace Bullying by Aryanne Oade and Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace by Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf and Cooper



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