Bullying is not just a problem confined to school classrooms and playgrounds. It is a pervasive issue in the workplace and employers are recognising that there are costs associated with ignoring or mishandling instances of bullying. The costs of bullying can be significant and include legal expenses, absenteeism, reduced productivity, reduced job satisfaction, increased employee turnover, and increased occurrences of disability leave. Workplace bullying not only affects the lives of those directly involved, but it also has a negative impact on an organisations culture, performance, and reputation.
While statistics on the incidence of workplace bullying vary, one study found that 13% of U.S. employees report being bullied currently and 49% of workers report that they have been affected by workplace bullying, either being a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behaviour against a co-worker.  There’s significant research to support that the most common type of bullying is top-down bullying, where a superior bullies an employee.  The bully is often someone who is in a position of control who feels threatened by someone else’s skills, education, or talents, and may even be someone who is a long-standing company employee.
Although managers and supervisors are the most common perpetrators of bullying behaviour, lateral bullying (peer to peer), and bottom-up bullying (where an employee bullies a superior) can also occur in the workplace. One of the major common means of workplace bullying is email. A bullying email cannot be overheard by a third party and so lessens the likelihood of the bully being reported. Email also allows bullies to feel anonymous because they do not have to face their target in-person.
Regardless of the type of bullying and the individuals involved, workplace bullying must always be addressed. If workplace bullying is not appropriately dealt with, the employer can be held legally responsible. Organisations need to ensure that they are taking steps to not only address bullying when it occurs but also set up safeguards and proactive measures to prevent or discourage bullying.
Policies can be used as tools to educate employees as well as provide a framework to address bullying when it occurs. When developing a workplace bullying policy organisations should include:
- Applicable legislation
- Goals and objectives
- Clear definitions
- Consequences of violation
- Role of management
- Role of employees
- Investigation / complaints procedure
It’s also critical that the policy includes an assurance that allegations and occurrences of bullying will be dealt with seriously, quickly and confidentially.
Employees need to be made aware that workplace bullying is a serious issue that is detrimental to themselves, their co-workers, and the organisation. Employee education should:
- Ask employees to be watchful for bullying in the workplace
- Encourage employees to intervene if the situation does not present any personal danger
- Ask employees to remember as many details as possible and report the incident to management
- Provide employees with reassurance that they can come forward without fear of reprisal
- Include a clear complaint process: who employees can report an incident to, who will investigate, when it will be investigated, and potential resolutions
Managers need to receive training and education on workplace bullying that includes the types of bullying, how to spot bullying, and how to respond. Organisations should also review the leadership styles of their managers and whether training or coaching may be needed to help reduce the likelihood of bullying. Leaders who focus on rewards and punishments and rarely provide feedback are more likely to exhibit bullying behaviours, whereas transformational leaders who inspire and support staff create a team culture where bullying is less likely.
Workplace bullying has serious impacts on the lives of employees and organisational culture. To minimise the costs associated with workplace bullying it’s important to not only have education and processes in place but to also foster a culture of support and collaboration. Performance feedback, fair and equitable treatment, social connections, open communication, and management accountability will all help to create a positive environment where bullying is less prevalent and accepted.
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