Bullying behaviour in the workplace is as old as the concept of work itself and no shortage of definitions exists of bullying and bullying in the workplace. Conversely with all the economy-driven changes occurring in organizations today, workplace bullying is a phenomenon that managers need to recognize and address. In this myriad of metaphors, TLConsult describe bullying as repeated and persistent negative acts towards one or more individual(s), which involve a perceived power imbalance and create a hostile work environment.
In our experience the presence of bullying within an organisation comes at a significant cost not only financially, but in terms of time, and people’s health and wellbeing. Our services are often engaged to investigate an allegation of bullying. In many cases the allegation has not been substantiated; but we have found that various processes or organisational inadequacies have led to the bullying grievance being lodged in the first place these include:
- Poor recruitment practices- wrong person without skills or not right organisational cultural fit;
- Poor promotion processes – “you are doing the job well so now you can manage the team”;
- Lack of skill of management;
- Inadequate performance management processes
When there has been an allegation of bullying substantiated, at best organisations blame the bully and don’t look at what may have created this situation; at worst they deny the findings and allow the culture to continue as the person is a well-respected member of the senior team.
We have a theory we call the “Frankenstein Theory” – do you blame Frankenstein for his bad behaviour or do you blame Dr Frankenstein his creator. This analogy is common in organisations where there is a culture of bullying, that is, the bully is blamed, but the organisation does not take ownership for allowing the bulling behaviour to exist in the first place.
More often than not, victims blame themselves and doubt their own self-worth. They feel shame and guilt and replay incidents over and over in their minds, wondering if they could have done anything differently. They are anxious and troubled. In many cases, by using the term bullying to describe their work experience, employees have sought to employ an emotive and highly charged term to highlight their discontent at increasingly difficult work situations. The focus has not been on defining, measuring, and explaining the essential nature of the bullying phenomenon instead the accepted norm is that bullying is related to the recipients state of mind – the key to understanding whether bullying has occurred is not whether the conduct was intended on the part of the perpetrator, but whether it was unwanted on the part of the recipient. This not only miscalculates the problem, because recorded incidents invariably represent only a minority of the cases and does not reflect the current circumstances.
Today, organisations have to cope with the demands of a rapidly changing and competitive environment that can lead to pressures in how they manage staff. The 'lean and mean' organizational model so prevalent today is making a bad situation worse. Roles have been enlarged and supervisors tend to be more vulnerable because of the intensity of change processes. While staff have to adapt quickly to a vast range of challenges exacerbated in an environment of constant adjustment which can result in a decline in staff morale. And it is this vulnerability which is perceived as a catalyst in many bullying scenarios.
The growth of the service-sector economy may be fuelling a rise in workplace bullying simply because the nature of the work itself, with its reliance on constant personal interaction between co-workers and between supervisors and subordinates, creates the need for constant personal interaction and hence, more opportunities for bullying to occur.
In times of economic downturn greater pressure is placed on employees to perform, which can lead to more abusive behaviour directed at subordinates
A bullied worker is much less productive and engaged. Bullying has a devastating effect on the victims' productivity, emotional and physical health. The victims waste, a lot of their time at work defending themselves and networking for support, thinking about the situation, being demotivated and stressed, and absences due to stress-related illnesses. Eventually many bullied workers give up and leave their jobs and professions because they “can’t take it anymore.”
Managers under pressure to meet tight deadlines with smaller staffs may take out their frustrations on underlings; the managers who prove the most effective at getting their staff to perform are often the most valued, even if their methods include abusive behaviour. Results at any cost is espoused, achieving KPI’s is rewarded with bonuses the way in which the results were achieved is never questioned.
The manager’s role is vital in recognising the signs of bullying and working with those involved towards a quick and fair resolution. Although HR can support the line manager in their role of identifying, managing and dealing with inappropriate behaviours, the line manager needs to set the standard of behaviour for the team. Often, by the time the HR department gets involved in a bullying case, team relationships have already broken down and may be beyond repair, resulting in formal grievance/disciplinary procedures or even tribunals.
As well as understanding the policy and procedures, the line manager also needs to be able to recognise when relationships within the team are becoming strained and how to deal with any conflict that may arise.
In other cases, managers may not even be aware of what's going on in the lower levels of the company; it's interesting how tuned in the top group of managers are to the games and the politics that go on in their own ranks, yet they're completely oblivious to what's going on in the ranks below
Additionally, downsizing, changes in leadership, or changing job descriptions may lead to bullying because employees become insecure about their jobs, feel they are losing control, or experience increased workloads. Often, targets are perfectionists and overachievers, and the bully views them as patronizing and egotistical, or they envy the target’s status. Bullies try to preserve their own sense of self by humiliating the target, withholding vital information, or setting unrealistic expectations.
The diversification of the workforce may also be a factor. When people with diverse characteristics are compelled to work together, decreased levels of interpersonal attraction and increased potential for aggression may be the result, especially if diversity is not properly fostered and managed.
Some companies may even consider bullies role models. We’ve found several companies have this macho type of organizational culture that promotes insensitive behaviour, where it’s OK to yell and scream at subordinates because that's how your employer treated you back when you were at the bottom of the ladder.
Undoubtedly HR can help put a stop to the problem, but our experience suggests it isn’t countering bullying behaviour in a number of circumstances. HR has not proven helpful in many of these types of situations because, the department often does not have the same level of respect within the organisation and cannot find a place at the decision-makers' table. Counter to this is HR execs are not seen as being useful and employees avoid seeking their support as they are seen to be aligned with management. What we find particularly disturbing is that in its quest to become a strategic partner, HR has abandoned its role as employee advocate in many organizations. They are often working in a silo of the organisation’s day to day practices. Demonstrably, when you're trying to be seen as a business partner, it's hard to balance that with standing up for employees against an aggressor whose support you're seeking to cultivate. At times HR sit separate from the business units and do not have the intimate knowledge of the work, they are seen as the gatekeepers of policy, often escalating issues when they could be resolved easily at the local level with proactive input in the form of facilitated discussion with parties involved.
Another common issue is organisations resistance to invest in Employee Relations expertise. Not all organisations can afford a HR department, but they also think they know how to manage workplace issues. This seems at odds with how costly a claim of workplace bullying can be. Conversely organisations will not hesitate to spend on an external bookkeeper and accountant if they cannot afford a finance department.
Organisations can dramatically slow down workplace bullying, but it requires a commitment to work with managers in drawing the line against such behaviour. Managers need to stay engaged to a bullying evasion prescription and look at what's going on around them. This is where HR can really make a difference. One of the chief ways is by establishing a zero-tolerance policy for workplace aggression, similar to what's been done with regard to sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
Once that's been established, HR should develop an incident log that managers can use to keep track of bullying behaviour and its perpetrators. Keeping a record of such incidents will help HR do what's often necessary for obtaining the organizational resources it needs for fighting a problem: link it to the bottom line. If HR keep a proper record of these occurrences and match them with stress claims, sick leave and job turnover, within a few years any organisation will inevitably see patterns emerge linking these factors, which can be countered.
Building a culture of dignity and respect at work means creating a workplace where appropriate ways of behaving are clearly communicated, promoted and supported. It also means individuals being supported in accepting responsibility for their behaviour and actions, and working towards solutions when problems occur. Changing entrenched behaviours which have always been seen as acceptable isn’t ever going to be easy, but it can’t be ignored when the bullying has to stop.