Bullying in the workplace 


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Bullying in the workplace

1. So how do you know if you are being bullied?

2. Victims of bullying

3. How to deal with bullying

4. Take action to look after yourself


Traditionally associated with the playground, bullying is now a serious problem in the workplace. In fact, workplace bullying, also called general harassment, is more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination.

Bullying is not illegal unless it is linked to or based on issues covered by anti-discrimination laws, such as race, sex, gender, or disability. But bullying does pose serious mental and physical health risks to the victim, and has dire consequences for the organisation as a whole. 

People may be physically injured, or may suffer from psychological illnesses such as anxiety disorders, depression, stress or insomnia. Employers face increased staff absenteeism, stress leave, decreased productivity, high staff turnover and poor morale, and may even be liable for legal and workers' compensation.

It therefore makes sense for companies to have anti-bullying policies and to train staff on how to nip bullying in the bud. However, many organisations have no such policies, and if they do, they are often ignored. To make matters worse, victims are not always sure that what they are experiencing is, in fact, bullying. 

So how do you know if you are being bullied?  And what can you do about it?

Workplace bullying can be defined as repeated offensive, abusive, intimidating or insulting behaviour, or the abuse of power that damages the recipient physically, psychologically or socially.

Here are some examples of workplace bullying:

  • Spreading malicious rumours
  • Excluding or isolating someone socially
  • Staring, dirty looks or other negative eye contact
  • Giving others the silent treatment
  • Intentionally damning with faint praise
  • Undermining or deliberately impeding someone’s work
  • Hurting someone physically, by punching, kicking, spitting, pushing, shoving, biting, scratching, attacking someone with a weapon, etc.
  • Being made to do humiliating things in order to be part of a team or group
  • Removing responsibilities without cause
  • Constantly changing work guidelines – or shifting the goalposts as it’s called in Australia
  • Blaming someone for breakages or mistakes they didn’t do
  • Intentionally changing rosters to inconvenience someone
  • Setting impossible deadlines, thereby setting a person up to fail
  • Withholding important information or purposefully providing misinformation
  • Assigning unreasonable duties or an impossible workload in a way that creates stress
  • Assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to the job
  • Verbally abusing, or making fun of you or your work (including your family, sex, sexuality, race or culture, education or economic background, clothing, accent) 
  • Creating a feeling of uselessness by not assigning enough work
  • Persistently criticising an individual
  • Belittling a person's opinion
  • Unwarranted or undeserved punishment
  • Blocking applications for training, leave or promotions
  • Invading someone's privacy by pestering, stalking or spying
  • Tampering with someone's personal belongings or work equipment

As mentioned before, it's not always clear if someone is a bully. Bullies are usually cowards but they can be cunning. For example, they might only bully you when no one else is around and then be pleasant to you in front of others.

Keep in mind that comments aimed at providing constructive feedback would not be considered as bullying, but rather as an attempt to help the person with his or her work.

If you're not sure whether you are being bullied, ask yourself whether most other people would also consider the behaviour unacceptable.

Victims of bullying can experience some of the following feelings or reactions:

  • Shock
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Helplessness
  • A sense of vulnerability
  • Decreased confidence
  • Lowered self-esteem and/or low morale
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach pains and/or headaches
  • Panic attacks or acute anxiety about going to work
  • Family stress or tension
  • Inability to concentrate and decreased productivity

 Unhappy employees will negatively affect the company's culture and productivity. Some of the effects are:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • High staff turnover
  • Increased stress
  • Low morale
  • Reduced productivity
  • Increased costs (recruitment, workers’ compensation, legal fees)
  • Reduced corporate image and customer confidence
  • Lowered profits

How to deal with bullying

Psychologists Gary and Ruth Namie, authors of The Bully At Work (Sourcebooks, 2003), suggest these two steps in dealing with a bully:

  1. Take care of your mental health. Seek the support of family and friends. Consider talking to a psychologist. Work trauma is overwhelming, and you need to be emotionally well in order to deal with the situation
  2. Get the bully off your back by:

o    Documenting the bully's actions against you

o    Seek allies. Talk to colleagues who aren't associated with the bully and find out if they're experiencing similar treatment. If so, work as a group

o    Review internal policies and mission statements to see whether the bully has violated any codes of conduct

o    Look for laws that might have been broken, such as sexual harassment or racial discrimination. Consider consulting a lawyer

o    Identify potential allies higher in rank than the bully. Meet with the most senior one you can find. Explain in a concise, factual and unemotional manner how the bully has repeatedly violated company policies and rules of accepted workplace behaviour. Point out how the mistreatment compromises the company's productivity and profitability

o    Present some specific steps you'd like this senior person to take, such as transferring the bully, transferring you or disciplining the bully

The workplace is where you spend a large amount of your time and being victimised, manipulated and emotionally abused at work can affect all areas of your life. It's important that you find constructive ways of dealing with your situation to make sure that you and others in your situation do not have to endure general harassment.

Take action to look after yourself

 Remember, you don’t have to put up with being bullied. If you don’t feel up to taking the above steps to get the bully off your back, or you don’t think the job or its career opportunities are worth it, then find yourself another job as quickly as possible. The longer you put off taking action of one kind or another, the worse things could get. But taking action to either get out or get the bully dealt with will make you feel in control and empowered.

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