How to recognise workplace bullying
Workplace bullying is definitely on the rise, not least because of the ample opportunities for cyber-bullying in our increasingly high tech work environments.
The situation is also not helped by the tough economic climate, which tends to have an impact on management behaviour and can lead to increased levels of stress throughout the organisation, not least if inappropriate tactics are employed to boost sales and increase staff productivity. The problem can also be compounded if top teams work remotely or are too caught up in their own challenges to keep an eye on what is happening. When they finally realise that there is a problem, however, it is often too late to retrieve the situation and such inaction can lead to resignations or serious health issues and legal claims for compensation. But while robust procedures and a zero tolerance policy will go a long way towards deterring bullies, it is often difficult to pick up the early signs and symptoms - even if managers’ eyes are on the ball. So the key question is how does bullying behaviour manifest itself in the workplace? Bullying behaviour can cover a wide range of both overt and covert actions. It is not unusual, for example, for individuals to complain that their professional competence has been called into question as a result of disparaging remarks or criticism from colleagues or managers, whom they feel are undermining their work. These attacks might include overt actions such as a public ‘dressing down’ for alleged work errors, or covert behaviour such as circulating rumours or gossip that appear to question an individual’s ability. Recognising bullying behaviour But such scenarios can also include ‘non-action’ - for instance, not acknowledging and/or approving work well done or failing to ask the opinion of someone who is clearly best qualified to provide relevant input. Bullies will typically:
- Make unreasonable demands of their chosen target
- Shout at victims publicly as a deliberate tactic to disempower them
- Give instructions that are subsequently changed for no apparent reason
- Allocate tasks that they know are beyond an individual’s ability
- Block promotion by refusing to give a fair appraisal or endorse a pay increase or bonus award
- Exclude the victim from discussions that are germane to their work responsibilities
- Overwork individuals by imposing unrealistic deadlines on them and deliberately setting them up to fail
- Micro managing the person concerned and checking every dot and comma in order to deliberately imply, in some instances, that they are incompetent.
Most bullies are secretive in their behaviour, but those who aren’t, generate fear not only with their target but also among those who witness it. Fear is a key factor in this scenario and bullies invariably pick on someone who lacks in confidence. But they also often target people who are popular and are, therefore, perceived as a threat. A key issue for individuals who are being bullied is that they often feel they have lost control and, as a result, are no longer able to carry out their duties without coming under threat. Instead, they live from day-to-day as they fight to regain a position of normality, usually unsuccessfully. After a time, they tend to become introverted and shy away from contact with others in the workplace. They may also appear tense, anxious, prone to emotional outbursts and become uncooperative. The stress created by bullying likewise often leads to minor illnesses such as headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and fatigue. But if stress is experienced over a prolonged period, people may ultimately suffer more serious health problems, including ‘burnout’ and a breakdown. As a result, it is clearly important that employers recognise the impact that bullying can have on both individuals and the organisation as a whole. In particular, robust and formal policies and procedures should be put in place to deal with bullying or harassment issues. Effective intervention Going down this route will indicate that the company takes the matter seriously as well as provide it with a mechanism for dealing with complaints that are made through both formal and informal channels. This approach will be particularly valuable if a case of intimidation or harassment against the organisation is brought before the courts or an industrial tribunal. However, people are often reluctant to discuss their experiences of bullying due to fear of reprisals, further intimidation or the perception that they have a ‘black mark’ against their name that could damage their career prospects. Therefore, most people are unwilling to take formal action, which is no doubt a contributory factor to the high exit rates associated with harassment of this type. But the issue could have been picked up during an exit interview by asking the simple question: ‘Have you ever been bullied at work?’ Undoubtedly the most effective intervention, however, is to train all managers in how to recognise the signs and symptoms as well as how to resolve disputes as quickly and effectively as possible. All too often, they fail to act simply because they feel out of their depth, are unsure of what to do and hope that the problem will go away. Most victims of bullying, meanwhile, have two main aims – to keep their job and to have their working life return to ‘normal’. But these apparently simple goals can get lost in defensive positioning over possible legal claims and worries over future action to try and remedy the situation. Bullying is obviously unacceptable in the modern workplace and an organisation’s action (or inaction) in this regard will be judged by its staff - with inaction usually being viewed as the equivalent of condoning such activity. But generally speaking, people do not want to work for a company that has a reputation for bullying, not least because such behaviour is pernicious insidious and, as such, needs to be stamped out the moment it is identified or reported. To do this, however, the whole organisation from the boardroom down must stand behind anti-bullying policies in order to demonstrate unequivocally that such behaviour is, and remains, unacceptable. Carole Spiers is a motivational speaker and author who has just written a new book entitled 'Show Stress who's boss'.