Workplace Bullying

workplace6Bullying occurs in many ways, having many faces, and occurring in many different places and situations.   Bullying is a terrible insidious action that happens and it affects everyone involved.  Many people don’t even recognize that bullying is occurring.  We can easily observe bullying when we see someone going up to another person with a fist in their face.  Bullying, however, comes in so many different forms that some forms are less evident but are still bullying none the less.  Let’s look at an incident that is not as clearly defined but it is still bullying.

     Many years ago Fred Wyeld, who was a supervisor at that time, was approached by an employee. Fred had directed this employee to complete a task.  This employee was disappointed because he disliked doing this task.   He asked Fred to get another employee to do it.  Fred declined his request.  The employee went into a tirade and decided to use the race card, telling Fred that the only reason he had been delegated this task was because he was black.

     The worker’s union steward was present and fully aware of this conversation.   Fred responded,  “If you feel you have a grievance, you are entitled to use the process made available to you, to report the incident to the Human Rights Commission.  However, since you have wrongly accused me publicly, of discrimination, I expect a public apology.   Meanwhile, go and complete your task that has been assigned to you.”

     The employee had a short meeting with his union steward and returned to talk to Fred. “I am sorry.  I was hasty in accusing you of discrimination” the employee said.

     The employee was clearly trying to bully the supervisor by using a discrimination card, hoping that the supervisor would succumb to his workplace bullying tactics.

     Another example of workplace bullying was actually occurring at a local industry.  This woman’s department was short-staffed but the supervisor refused to hire and train a new employee. The supervisor was imposing more work hours on those staff that were already over-burdened.  So she called the worker almost every day to help fill in these labour shortfalls.  The woman, who was hired as a part-time worker, only wanted a couple of shifts a week.  That was clearly communicated when she was hired.  So when the supervisor called, she refused the shifts.  The supervisor would then make her feel guilty for not taking the work and accused her of not being a team player.   When she returned to work the supervisor made her feel uncomfortable and sometimes the consequences were unfavorable.

Recognizing that bullying exists is the first step in reducing and finding solutions to the problem.

Bullying is an unpleasant reality in many workplaces.  Allowed to go unchecked, it gives unrestrained, undeserved, and unwarranted authority to the malefactors.  The abuse of personal power can seriously damage an employee’s morale.  Unrestrained, bullies create an atmosphere of oppression and coercion that demoralizes employees and their targets.

When organizations allow any person to control another with emotionally or physically abusive tactics, worker respect for, and trust in, the company soon disappears.  Employees lose self-confidence and both performance and productivity go down.  What is more, illness and accidents increase.  Ultimately the organization’s bottom line will be affected.  Unimpeded, bullies soon influence whether workers will even choose to come into work.  Employee turnover increases and with it comes the cost of hiring and training replacements.

     A man I knew became the target of a workplace bully. While the culprit didn’t harm his victim physically, he scarred him emotionally.  Daily, the tormentor embarrassed, and teased his co-worker.  The coward would set up “practical jokes,” that the other workers laughed at, but which crushed the victim’s spirit.

     In time, the man couldn’t take the abuse any longer.  He became depressed and, at times, suicidal.  Relegated to long-term disability, he was no longer able to do the excellent job he had done before the bullying began.  Not only did the company lose a first-rate worker, their insurance premiums went up as the bully directed similar attacks at other vulnerable employees.  Eventually several workers, including this man, brought lawsuits against the company, resulting in even greater financial loss.  When the plant management finally dealt with the bully he’d already done considerable damage.  Not only did the firm suffer a loss in prestige, as they had been a respected company in their city of operation, they experienced a loss of customer and employee good will that still continues to haunt the business years later.

To prevent bullying in any form, companies need to be proactive in creating an anti-bullying policy.  As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In order to reduce bullying in the workplace, people need to understand some simple principles. The first is the complacency principle (say nothing and do nothing), the second is the complicity principle (just as guilty).  Whenever someone is complacent long enough regarding a situation they become complicit in that situation.  Whenever we watch one employee bullying another, and we neither say, nor do anything to stop it, we become part of the problem.  Through our complacency, we become accomplices.

To clarify, let me use the analogy of a campfire.  To burn, every fire needs three things: heat or an igniter, fuel, and oxygen.  Workplace bullying similarly requires an “igniter” (the bully), “fuel” (the victim), and “oxygen” (the audience of co-workers).  Take away any of these elements and the fire goes out.  Taking away the bully can be a significant challenge to any company given the myriad of laws protecting workers from dismissal.  Removing an excellent worker because he or she is the target of a bully is counterproductive as well.

Frankly, taking away the “oxygen” is the easier solution.  If co-workers fail to provide most bullies with the audience they seek, bullying will cease.  To ensure this happens, management must be alert and lines of communications with subordinates must be open and fail safe.  Whenever bullying takes place, it must be stopped immediately.  Employees at all levels must see that management takes bullying seriously and that discipline will be handed out.

Employees must also know that they have a responsibility to report bullying and that management will hold them accountable for not doing so.  Management must have a clear written policy on bullying.  Moreover, management must assure workers that they can report the abuse of a coworker without fear of reprisal.  Failure to have a policy in place constitutes management’s complacency and makes leadership accomplices-by-neglect in workplace bullying.

Without exception, all employees should be clear about the company’s stand on harassment in any form.  All employees should be equally clear about the consequences of violating any part of that policy irrespective of their positions within the organization.   Quite simply, bullying—indeed any form of harassment or discrimination—affects everyone.  Allowed to continue unchecked bullying puts power in the wrong hands and gives the bully carte blanche to continue harassing others.

Bullying can unplug the tub of workers and in its most severe forms, can throw the entire corporate structure into disarray.  Bullying, discrimination, or maltreatment of any kind, clearly demoralize their targets.  What is more, in time they will also demoralize those who observe and do nothing about them.  Respect for, and trust in the organization soon decay, and productivity, quality, and income go down.

When one worker harasses another and all in the organization refuse to be implicit co-conspirators, they remove the “oxygen” from workplace bullying.  Then, all forms will similarly decrease accordingly.

Since each incident of bullying and the geographic location in which it occurs may be different, then each response will be different.  Even so, the principle remains the same.  Report the bullying!  To prevent the bully from intimidating the onlookers, put into place a simple reporting process by which management will address any grievance.  If a worker has a complaint, that process must allow them to report bullying without fear of reprisal.

A bullying policy that is acted upon will protect employees and prevent the company from being involved in costly lawsuits.  What is more, management will have credibility.  Employees will more likely feel they are part of a team.   When workers trust management, their productivity improves, and so do the company’s profits.

Everyone wins!