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Bullying Doesn't Happen Around Here!

Or does it?

by Jennifer McCoy

Bullying at work has hit the headlines again, despite all the legal and social initiatives to stamp it out. You might think it doens't happen any more, but a recent survey by Drake International revealed that 56% of employees have either been bullied or have witnessed workplace bullying within the last 12 months; 60% of employees who have been bullied felt their company did not deal with the situation effectively.

"Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed toward an employee, or group of employees, that creates a risk to health and safety"

~ www.worksafe.vic.gov.au

The most common forms of bullying are:

  • Verbal abuse – insults, sarcasm
  • Silence and isolation
  • Psychological harassment - constant criticism
  • Not getting the information you need to do your work properly
  • Public humiliation

Managers too are not immune. Research by Griffith University's Dr Sara Branch, reported at the Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference 2009, that 1:4 Australian managers have experienced bullying. ‘Upward bullying’ takes the form of rumour spreading, withholding information, intentionally missing deadlines, skipping meetings – even threatening behaviour.

Many managers don't report it, fearing disbelief, lack of support or blame - for not being effective managers.

Bullying can be subtle to all except the victim but the effects can be far reaching:

  • Lower efficiency
  • Absenteeism and low morale
  • Humiliation and loss of face
  • Civil and legal actions

Workplace bullying is specifically identified as a psychological hazard in the workplace, a specific breach of OH&S legislation throughout Australia. Companies have a duty of care to their employees to assess, control and manage the risk of psychological hazards. In fact the organisation Bullying. No Way!, lists a total of 35 separate legislation resources, across Australia, exist to cover every possible bullying scenario.

Yet workers compensation claims for psychological hazards are on the increase and on average cost twice as much as claims for physical injury. A study by Work Cover (ACT) has found that workplace bullying costs the Australian economy between $6 – 13 billion per year. [The Age Sept 15, 2009]

When is bullying most likely to occur?

While bullies may emerge at any stage, one of the main triggers for upwards bullying is organisational change. As one manager reported to us:

"The CEO was controlling and had moved this staff member around, so when I joined the company she saw her chance to 'get even' using passive aggression. Nobody would have recognised it as she was unfailingly polite - outwardly. She didn't report to me, but my department needed to interact with her, and she deliberately misconstrued every attempt to discuss work issues. A common strategy was, if asked her opinion about a joint project, to write a lengthy and unneccesary email response - and then complain to her manager that I had caused her extra work. Invariably there would be an implication that I didn't know my job. Was this bullying? Not at first - the problem should have been manageable. However, her manager chose to support her and so it grew from there."

How can you handle bullying?

Bullying can be subtle as well as devastating for the victim. Cyber-bullying amongst teenagers has been the most newsworthy item on the subject for some time, but don't forget to look at your own workplace.

There are a number of steps you can take.

Start with your anti-bullying policy and then make sure everyone knows what it means.

Refuse to accept any behaviour that comes even close to bullying.

Allow people to report bullying - and treat it seriously.

Conduct a risk management assessment using the Victorian Worksafe Bullying Risk Indicator tool.

Discuss with your leadership team and staff the kind of culture you want to develop, and maintain, in your organisation. How do you like people to behave? What happens now? How do people show respect for each other? To what extent do you look for blame when things go wrong? How could you start to change 'the way we do things around her'?

Remember that while not every concern will prove to be bullying, there may be great opportunities to coach people to communicate more confidently and respectfully with each other.

See also:

Ineffective options when dealing with workplace harrassment. Ezine, Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. Industrial and Organisational Psychology Conference, June 2009. Media ReleaseDrake International. Workplace Bullying Research. Media Release Branch,S & Murray. J. (2008) Building relationships and resilience in the workplace. Bond University.