You might associate bullying more with the playground than the workplace, yet research indicates it's more common than we might think.
It can happen in any workplace, large or small, factory or office, logging site or lunchroom. In a recent survey of New Zealand government employees, one in five reported experiencing unfair treatment on the basis of some personal characteristic, with just over one third experiencing "unwelcome" behaviour that served to humiliate, intimidate or offend them. In one United Kingdom study, 53 percent of respondents reported being bullied at work and 77 percent said they had witnessed bullying behaviour.
So what? Ignoring a problem like bullying can cost your business big time, and not just in lost productivity and potential revenue. There are the costs of recruitment and training of new staff to replace those who leave, not to mention lost business opportunities. Now, with the new health and safety laws which recognise stress as a workplace hazard, if you don't have policies and practices in place to prevent bullying it could also cost you a hefty fine. At the extreme end, international research suggests bullying can result in an increase in white-collar crime, petty theft and fraud as disenfranchised staff "fight back".
What is bullying?
Bullying is "persistent, offensive, abusive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour". It can be physical, mental, emotional or sexual. It can happen between managers and staff or between work mates, and can range from consistently ignoring or excluding a person, to personal insults, name-calling and outright physical aggression.
How do you know it's happening?
There may be signs:
Are more staff taking sick days or unexplained absences?
How's office morale?
How many preventable "accidents" have there been lately?
Are staff looking tired, coming in late and leaving early?
Do they seem to be avoiding work social situations?
Perhaps they get defensive about working with particular colleagues?
But unless someone gets brave - or desperate - enough to front up with a complaint, you probably won't know it's going on. New Zealand research on school bullying shows it almost exclusively happens before an audience. It's about establishing the bully's power, not just with the person they are picking on, but with the rest of the group and thus entails some collusion.
Where there is bullying in a workplace, there will be people who witness it and don't take action. That means that an effective response to bullying - or any workplace relations issue - needs to go beyond the level of interpersonal intervention, so that the problem does not remain with the "victim" but becomes the responsibility of the whole organisation.
It's about creative a zero-tolerance culture for bullying. A comprehensive and effective response might involve:
Workshops to equip staff with the tools to identify and deal with bullying and abusive behaviours. Although this work may seem to support the "victims", the aim is as much to impart information to "perpetrators". It is not until bullying behaviour is named and defined by the group that many "bullies" realise the impact their behaviour is having on those around them.
Training and support for managers to help them to deal with the denials and deflections that bullies can put forward and the procedures to follow.
In the wider organisational context, effective policies and complaints procedures to deal, explicitly, with the issue of bullying. As part of their induction, new staff should be made aware of such policies.
In sum, there is no single strategy to tackle workplace bullying, and you may never completely eliminate the threat from your workplace. What is important, however, is being alert to it and being willing to act.
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