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Workplace Bullying - what is Is.... and Isn't

Posted by Denise on 16 February 2012 | 0 Comments


For anyone who has been on the end of bullying it is a toxic and insidious experience.  It can take over your life and leave you unable to cope with the most simple of tasks.   However, bullying is a very real workplace experience for many employees.   Research undertaken for the Department of Labour in 2009[1] revealed that the majority of employees will, at some time during their careers, be exposed to workplace bullying directly, or indirectly as observers.

Bullying is not only unacceptable on moral grounds.  Left unchecked, it can also result in the employer breaching their obligations under the Health & Safety Act and the Employment Relations Act.

Many New Zealand managers either dismiss workplace bullying as “tough management”, turn a blind eye because “it’s too hard to prove” or believe that the “victim” is too ‘sensitive’.    Having coached people in how to raise a bullying complaint with the goal of resolving the issue amicably,  targets more often than not report back that their complaint was treated lightly or totally dismissed by the employer.  Employer responses typically include  "I can’t believe that about  … xxx" , "What did you do to upset him/her?", “No – I’m sorry, I don’t believe that has happened.   He/She would never say/do that" ,  “Harden up – you’ll be right!”, “He/She doesn’t mean any harm.”  This has the effect of compounding the problem for the target; ‘nobody believes me and I’m the problem’.

Workplace bullying has a range of substantial negative effects on targets.  Targets are likely to have lower self-esteem, more negative emotion, anxiety, stress, fatigue, burnout and depression than non-targets.  Alongside the damage to individuals, bullying also affects the organisation through increased absenteeism, turnover, and decreases in productivity and employee performance.  

Bullying is typically not regarded as a ‘one-off’ event but as an evolving process.  The Employment Relations Authority suggests that while bullying may take diverse forms, to be classified as such there is a general requirement that it include: repeated actions; carried out with the  desire to gain power or exert dominance; and carried out with the intention to cause fear and stress.     Importantly, it is the persistent nature of the negative behaviours that gives bullying its destructive force. 

Along with many other countries, New Zealand does not have a  legal definition  of bullying.  The Workplace Bullying & Trauma Institute (“WBTI”) is an organisation based in the United States and Canada. The WBTI definition of workplace bullying is:

  • The repeated health/endangering mistreatment of a person (the target) by a cruel perpetrator (the bully);
  • Acts of commission (hostile verbal, non verbal communication and interfering actions) and omission (the withholding of resources/time, information, training, support, equipment/guarantee failure) – which are all driven by the bully’s need to control the target;
  • Is illegitimate behaviour, unrelated to accomplishing productive work, so outrageous as to be the antithesis of what a good employer values and encourages;…”

Acas (UK) give the following definition: ’Bullying may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient'.   Bullying is defined by the effect of the behaviour, even though there may not be a specific intent to bully.   What may initially be intended as light hearted workplace banter, can evolve over time  into a bullying problem.  Turning this around requires a step change for the employer ; firstly in understanding and accepting that there is a problem to figuring out what they need to do differently to sort the problem.

What Bullying looks like

Workplace bullying involves a range of negative behaviours directed at a target.  The behaviours can be overt and covert.

Examples of overt, or obvious bullying includes (but is not limited to):

  • Abusive, insulting or offending language
  • Behaviour or language that frightens, humiliates, belittles or degrades, including criticism that is delivered with yelling and screaming;
  • Inappropriate comments about a person’s appearance, lifestyle or their family;
  • Making insulting or offensive comments about other
  • Invading personal space, finger pointing, shoving or blocking the way of others
  • Teasing or regularly making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes;
  • Interfering with a person’s personal effects or work equipment;
  • Physical assault or threats
  • Constantly criticizing others’ work and efforts
  • Spreading rumours or gossip
  • Engaging in excessive monitoring of the work of others

Covert behaviour  is much more difficult to spot.   I describe covert bullying as ‘under the radar’ bullying.   Covert behaviour that undermines,  treats less  favourably or disempowers  others is also bullying, for example:

  • Unreasonably overloading a person with work;
  • Deliberately setting them up to fail through timelines that are difficult to achieve, constantly changing deadlines, or setting tasks that are beyond a person’s skill level ;
  • Ignoring or isolating a person; excluding them from meetings they should be attending
  • Demonstrating ‘hot and cold’ behavior that erodes the victim’s confidence
  • Deliberately denying access to, information, consultation or resources;
  • Deliberately withholding information – knowledge is power;
  • Unfair treatment in relation to accessing entitlements such as leave or training

What isn’t bullying?

With the increased awareness of workplace bullying  there has been a corresponding increase in employers saying that when they have tried to tackle a performance issue they have been accused of ‘bullying’.  Crucially bullying does not include raising reasonable or justified concerns about work performance.  Employers have a legal right to direct and control how work is done, and managers have a responsibility to monitor workflow and give feedback on performance.   If an employee has obvious performance problems, these should be identified and dealt with in a constructive and objective way that does not involve personal insults, derogatory remarks or threatening behaviours.

Equally where a worker is dissatisfied with management practices, the problems should also be raised in a manner that remains professional and objective.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development  suggests that an organisation’s goal should be to develop a culture in which bullying and harassment is known to be unacceptable and where individuals are confident enough to bring complaints without fear of ridicule or reprisal.  Organisations should deal promptly, seriously and discreetly with any issues that are raised.     Over the next few blog posts I’m going to give some suggestions for organisations  around how they can achieve this.  Stay posted.

[1] Understanding Stress and Bullying in New Zealand Workplaces.  Bentley et al. 2009

Click here for a handout on Workplace Bullying Behaviours

Click here for a factsheet on Bullying and Gender

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