How to Identify and Manage Workplace Bullying
We all thought that bullying is only relevant in high school, and that any bullying behaviour suddenly stops once you enter the adult world. Well, we may have given humans a bit too much credit, because nothing could be further from the truth. Workplace bullying is in fact astonishingly prevalent in the Australian workforce with nearly half of workers claiming they have experienced bullying at work. And with so many obstacles in the way of recognising and resolving workplace bullying, it is no wonder that so many Australians are left feeling confused and unable to help themselves or other victims.
Workplace bullying can affect people of all demographics. Often, our beliefs that bullying only affects quiet, young and feminine types of people can block our views of subtle bullying that are happening right in front of us, to victims that are “unlikely” – like powerful men or those in higher, authoritative positions. This article will draw on the results from a workplace bullying study by the University of Wollongong (UoW) in 2014 (funded by beyondblue), to address methods of identifying, preventing and managing workplace bullying.
How to Identify Workplace Bullying
In order to understand and try to reduce and manage workplace bullying, we first need to know how to identify bullying behaviours in the workplace.
What is workplace bullying?
Workplace bullying, according to UoW, is “characterised by repeated and unreasonable behaviours directed towards a worker or group of workers” (page 5). It further breaks it down into two types of bullying:
- Work-related bullying: Bullying behaviours that target an individual’s work (e.g. “unreasonable demands, withholding necessary information, delegation of menial tasks, and excessive monitoring of work”; page 7)
- Person-related bullying: Bullying behaviours that target and attempt to demoralise an individual on a personal level (e.g. “ignoring, undermining, spreading rumours, threats, and aggression”; page 7).
What does workplace bullying look like?
According to the above definitions, work-related bullying can be made up of behaviours that undermine an employee’s work or over-demanding from them, which can include the following behaviours and actions (page 19):
- Unreasonable rejection of leave applications
- Refusal to provide training or promotion
- Unreasonable demands and pressure on work production
- Setting and pressure to meet impossible deadlines
- Removal of areas of responsibility without consultation.
On a personal level, bullying behaviours can include the below (page 19):
- Persistent attempts to belittle, undermine, criticise and monitor work
- Persistent attempts to humiliate
- Making inappropriate jokes and spreading gossip and rumours
- Undermining personal integrity.
And the violent and intimidating types of workplace bullying behaviours can be exhibited in the following ways (page 19):
- Verbal threats
- Persistent teasing
- Threats of physical violence (including to property)
- Shouting or being the target of spontaneous anger.
Bullying behaviours can come in so many different ways as above, making it that much more difficult to identify if done subtly. For example, you may be convinced to believe that you or a colleague has been producing low quality work and that the demands are justified. And of course you can’t go on leave when you haven’t even done enough work to warrant it! Or perhaps you just think you or a colleague needs to learn to take a joke when often being the butt of a joke or the target of snide comments referring to your height, weight, age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and more. And shouting and near fist fights at work? It must be high stress displayed in passion. I mean, it happens all the time in Wall Street firms, right?
Because of our constant efforts to justify behaviours we witness, identifying perpetrators or victims of bullying isn’t always easy. But do you notice anyone (including yourself) with mountains of work to be produced in a short period of time compared to colleagues? Or anyone that has never taken a proper leave in the longest time? Anyone with a nervous laughter any time a joke is being made about them? Or perhaps anyone that lashes out at colleagues? Identification of toxic behaviours at work all starts here, by trying to pay attention and notice to what’s going on around you or with you.
Where and when does workplace bullying occur?
Bullying can happen in any workplace environment, be it an office, café, restaurant, retail store, factory or a warehouse. And the study has shown 3 main potential predictors of workplace bullying behaviour, based on different theories (Figure 3, page 20):
|Frustration/strain explanation||Bullying results from frustrations and/or strains, such as job pressure, job stress, change in roles, management styles, high pressure environments.|
|Interpersonal conflict explanation||Bullying results from mis-management of workplace conflict. Although some conflict and disagreement is normal, poor conflict management skills by parties or managers escalates existing problems.|
|Intra-group explanation||Workplace bullying results from team or organisational environments which enable bullying. The social climate of the organisation drives bullying.|
The research has also found that there is no clear profile of “the victim”, meaning there is no single or few personal attributes that make certain individuals more likely to be victims of bullying. On the other hand, the survey identified a number of work and organisational factors that could contribute to work place bullying (page 21). It has been found that “bullying flourishes in cases where the expectations on workers are ambiguous and unpredictable, when workers are under high amounts of pressure but lack control over the outcomes of their work (Hoel, Einarsen & Cooper, 2003), and where the organisation lacks strong clear policies on workplace bullying and/or ethical behaviour.”
Apply the above situations to your current work and assess the level of stress, frustration and conflict your company is experiencing. Is the company currently undergoing a change in management or structure? Are there any proper communication policies? Does the social climate of your organisation drive bullying? Is there a lack of job security?
While these are not always the driving factors or predictors of bullying behaviour, identification of the current workplace attitude and environment can help you identify potential toxic and hurtful behaviours that are happening in your organisation. And by focusing on the organisation’s environment at large, you are not fixated on the individual’s contribution to victim behaviour and finding ways to justify bullying based on their (or your) personal traits.
What are the consequences of workplace bullying?
The effects of workplace bullying on its victims don’t just happen at work. In fact, it can have a serious and lasting impact on the victim’s health. UoW’s study has laid out a number of physical and mental health problems that victims of workplace bullying have a greater risk of experiencing or contracting (page 22), including:
- Chronic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease)
- Headaches and migraines
- Dizziness, stomach and chest pains
- Depression and anxiety
- Chronic stress
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Suicide ideation
- Lower quality of life.
The survey also found that even the witnesses of workplace bullying can experience poorer mental and physical health, due to reduced job satisfaction as a result of the general negative effect bullying has on the overall workplace (page 23).
Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that individuals that are accused of workplace bullying can also experience the negative mental health effects as listed above (page 23). While identifying and trying to prevent workplace bullying is critical to creating a safe workspace, unfair accusations can have devastating effects on the accused.
Workplace bullying doesn’t just have negative consequences for those directly involved or witnesses. In fact, it can have significant adverse effects on the organisation as a whole, including increased absence, lower productivity and job satisfaction, higher turnover rates, reputational harm and resulting financial costs (page 24).
How to Prevent and Manage Workplace Bullying
So, now that we’ve gone through the signs of workplace bullying and the effects it can have on organisations and individuals, how can we as individuals, co-workers or business owners contribute to the prevention of it? As with most things, the fish rots from the head down, and there aren’t a lot of person-level things that we can do to make significant changes in the bullying culture. The organisation itself needs to undergo a change in its policies and leadership style in order to address the problem at its root. Below are some of the existing and recommended workplace bullying prevention strategies identified by the UoW study.
What are the existing strategies to prevent and manage workplace bullying?
A number of strategies are being employed by organisations to prevent and manage workplace bullying (page 25), categorised by:
- Organisational: Such as policies and procedures, and addressing work culture
- Job-level: Such as job assignment and descriptions
- Individual level: Such as influencing employee attitudes, behaviour and interaction styles
- Multi-level: Such as a combination of the above strategies.
However, the research has found very little data showing the effectiveness of the above strategies on preventing and managing workplace bullying. In fact, the common strategies are considered by experts to be ineffective in preventing or managing workplace bullying, with the exception of employee coaching and leadership training. The examination of the effectiveness of existing strategies had the following results (page 26):
- Existing approaches and strategies to addressing workplace bullying are not appropriate.
- Workplace policies are often unclear and inconsistent.
- Individual level approaches may not be effective.
- Mediation is often misused.
What are some recommended strategies to prevent and manage workplace bullying?
Addressing bullying at the individual level was said to be ineffective as it addresses the wrong level; It targets the individual behaviour, instead of the context in which the behaviour can flourish (page 27). Instead, experts have recommended combining a whole organisation approach with a number of different prevention strategies, including the following:
- Develop and solidify a positive workplace culture and a norm of respect through consistent implementation
- Review and prevent re-occurrence of bullying
- Develop positive leadership practices
- Develop and make available clear policies and procedures, outlining acceptable versus unacceptable behaviour
- Develop methods of early identification or problem behaviours and peer contact networks
- Investigate and apply punitive action for bullies from an impartial perspective
- Provide leadership training that is tailored to the structure and type of organisation and the role of the person (pages 27-28).
Throughout the recommended strategies, ‘consistency’ was a recurring term, emphasising that consistent implementation of anti-bullying strategies is important in building and maintaining a positive culture of respect. For more specific recommendations, go to Section 7 Conclusions and Recommendations, from page 30.
Additionally, what can you do on an individual level?
We have reviewed and outlined some of the strategies that are used by organisations to prevent and manage workplace bullying. The implementation and practice of these strategies take time, and you may not see a change in culture any time soon, if your organisation even implements such strategies from the start. So, in the meantime, what can you do on an individual level, to overcome, prevent and manage workplace bullying, as a victim or a witness? The below methods are ones you can try to temporarily relieve the experience of bullying, but in order to address it in a deeper and more meaningful way or to address the mental or physical health effects arising from bullying incidents, you should speak to a medical professional.
Understand that you’re not alone.
If you’re a victim of workplace bullying, remind yourself that nearly half of workers in Australia has experienced workplace bullying. While this piece of information doesn’t change the situation or make it right, it can temporarily alleviate the feeling that you are one in millions of people that is singled out as a victim.
Remember that you didn’t bring it on.
Justification of bullying behaviour and making excuses for perpetrators or the environment that nurtures bullying is the last thing you should be doing. By trying to make sense of the bullying situation, you could be thinking, “It’s a really stressful time here right now. [Perpetrator] is under a lot of stress. It’ll pass soon” or “I probably could have done better and done X. Y and Z before being asked. I deserved it.” You’re not at work to babysit other grownups’ feelings when they’re stressed out and be their punching bag. You’re stressed, too, and even if you weren’t, it doesn’t give anyone else the right to take out their frustrations on you. And even if you could objectively have done a better job at a project, that still doesn’t warrant bullying.
Bullying is a response to shame.
The below excerpt is from Dr Mary Lamia on The Guardian:
“People wrongly assume bullies have low self-esteem, but their behaviour is actually a response to internalised shame. Although some people who live with shame have low self-esteem, those who behave like bullies tend to have high self-esteem and hubristic pride. They attack others to take away their shame – which allows them to remain unaware of their feelings.
Early in life people form different ways of responding to shame. By adulthood, these coping responses become personality traits. Typical coping responses fall into four types: attacking others, attacking oneself, avoidance and withdrawal. When shame threatens people who bully – for example, when they risk looking incompetent at work – they will attack others.
At the extreme side of the scale, people become narcissistic and deal with deeply-embedded shame by attacking others continually.”
While having this knowledge will not change the behaviours of the bully, it can help you to understand and remember that there isn’t anything wrong with you. It is the bully who is struggling to manage their emotions.
Keep a diary.
Write down everything that happens, be it for yourself or a colleague. Don’t leave out little details such as the time of the event or the tone of the perpetrator, and include all efforts from yourself or colleagues to try and stop the situation as well. This can help your case later on if you decide to file a complaint. What would help even more is to have someone else do the same whenever they notice bullying behaviour as well, so that there is more than one witness of the same incident.
Talk to family and friends.
It’s reasonable to not want to worry your family and friends by telling them that you’re being bullied at work or that a colleague is. However, as outlined earlier in this article, being the victim of workplace bullying can have significant negative effects on your physical and mental health. If not for anything else, your family and friends at least deserve to know why you’ve been acting differently lately, like withdrawing or easily agitated. They can also help to alleviate stress in your personal life and keep reminding you that it isn’t your fault, in order to try and restore reduced self-esteem.
Tell someone at work.
Talk to a trusted colleague or a manager that you’re either experiencing or witnessing bullying. Managing expectations here can be quite important, in that you don’t approach a colleague expecting them to solve this problem for you. Help them understand that you’re not putting pressure onto them by wanting them to fix the situation for you, but that you’re needing someone to talk to in confidence and some support.
In most workplaces, however, there will be a proper process for making a complaint and investigating bullying cases, so talking to someone at work can help you to start this process.
Get some professional help.
Although you can’t change the behaviour of others or the organisational culture, you can still try and manage your reactions to toxic behaviours by properly addressing it with a medical professional. Talk to your GP about your stress levels and talk to a psychologist to try and overcome the negative mental health effects. Better yet, ask your manager or HR department about your organisation’s Employee Assistance Program, which offers a limited number of counselling sessions to its employees with an external psychologist.
If you feel that the bullying can’t just be dealt with by yourself or that it needs the attention of the authorities (e.g. violent or threatening behaviour), treat it as any other emergency situations and call 000. In all states with the exception of Victoria, you can call 131 444 for a non-urgent situation.
Workplace bullying can also infringe on your workplace rights. Contact the Fair Work Ombudsman or visit its website to learn more about your rights as an employee or employer.
Also, keep in mind that person-related workplace bullying (e.g. based on personal traits like ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, religion, etc.) can be a violation of human rights. In such cases, you can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission.