Sticks and stones — and nasty emails — may not actually break your bones, but they can lead to some pretty significant consequences in the workplace.
Whether it’s increased stress claims, a toxic work culture, high turnover or all of the above, the negative impacts of bullying can be challenging and costly for an organization.
As our cultural awareness of bullying increases, we’ve begun to realize bullying doesn’t stay in the schoolyard, according to Ruth Wright, director of leadership and HR research at the Conference Board of Canada in Ottawa.
“It’s a growing social issue. We’re hearing about reports of cyberbullying in the schools, with some tragic consequences in some cases, we’re hearing high-profile instances of harassment and up the continuum to sexual assault. So I think that there’s growing social awareness and, from our perspective, we know that, ultimately, the schoolyard bullying grows up and moves into the workplace.”
That was among the messages of the Conference Board’s publication Workplace Bullying Primer: What It Is and How to Manage It.
“It’s always been there — we’re not saying that there’s more
bullying but I think there’s broader social awareness of it. And from our perspective, we think it’s really important that employers treat this proactively as an issue,” said Wright.
At this point, data on the prevalence of workplace bullying is rather limited, said Aaron Schat, associate professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
“I don’t think we have really good data to know whether it’s increasing. I think certainly it’s fair to say that our awareness is increasing,” he said.
Statistical-based estimates suggest about 25 per cent of people in an organization are impacted by bullying, but it can vary substantially, said Ruth McKay, associate professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa and a report co-author.
“One of the challenges we have is that a lot of organizations are not surveying their employees, and also the methodology by which surveys are completed.”
One of the difficulties inherent in measuring the prevalence of bullying is the fact it can take so many different — and often subtle — forms, said Schat.
“It can be subtle, non-verbal behaviours such as a sneer or a smirk or an eye-roll,” he said. “Turning away from someone when they enter the room, a refusal to give eye contact, a refusal to answer someone… there can be some very subtle, non-verbal behaviours that can constitute bullying.”
In some cases, the target himself may not even be aware these behaviours are taking place.
It’s about harm to individuals and it often involves a power imbalance in some way, shape or form, said Wright.
“(But) it’s pretty context-specific and there are different types of bullying, and that’s going to be a factor as well. Yes, there’s the top-down (bullying) and that’s the predominant form, but peer-to-peer is quite an issue and also bottom-up bullying, where an individual can be bullying a supervisor.”
One type of bullying that is not always associated with the workplace is cyberbullying, said Schat.
“We hear more about it in schools and educational contexts but really what cyberbullying is is it involves the use of technology, the use of social media to undermine someone. And certainly that can and does take place in organizational settings as well.”
There are many different ways it can unfold, and the target may or may not be aware of it, he said.
“It could involve a text during a meeting, for example — a text from one colleague to another about perhaps another colleague in the room, whether it’s ‘Did you see what she’s wearing?’ or ‘Did you hear what that idiot said this time?’ so it can be something like that. It could be emails sent between individuals about someone else,” said Schat.
“It could be the sending of pictures of the person, perhaps doctored in a way that makes them look ridiculous. And it could also involve sending the victim directly him or herself a text, an email, pictures, links, et cetera that in some way belittle them, make them feel foolish.”
Cyberbullying can also expand into employees’ personal time and social media accounts, he said.
“That’s certainly one of the challenges of cyberbullying is it doesn’t necessarily have physical barriers on it, so it could kind of bleed outside of the workplace but still involve co-workers.”
There’s also the false sense of anonymity that comes along with cyberbullying, said Schat — but it can still create reputational risk for an organization.
“Anybody who is using these kinds of technologies can easily develop a feeling of this not being public domain — until of course somebody shares it and it becomes public domain. The recent situation involving the Dalhousie dental students, for example — it was supposedly internal sharing, until a member decides to share it publicly, and suddenly it blows up,” he said.
“There’s a lot of risk that companies face in their reputation, and possibly legal risks and so forth if their workers are engaging in this type of behaviour.”
Guarding your workplace
Employers need to have solid, well-disseminated policies and procedures to address workplace bullying, as well as proper enforcement, said Schat.
“They need to talk about it and address it very openly, and develop policy around it. And not policy that is kind of dry and meaningless, but policy that’s backed up by regular, ongoing communication, and enforcement,” he said. “It’s important that organizations not tolerate indicators or instances of cyberbullying, or any kind of bullying when that behaviour occurs.”
It’s also important to to train employees and managers around properly documenting incidents, said McKay.
“One of the things that is really important when you talk about procedures is to make sure that you’re not erasing any of that documentation,” she said.
Ultimately, it’s about changing organizational cultures that enable bullying, said Wright.
“In environments where people are bullied, those people (can) also become bullies. So you really want to treat it as an organizational culture phenomenon. It’s not just about those one or two individuals who are bad apples that you need to identify and root out of your organization,” she said.
If an organization limits itself to just rooting out those one or two dysfunctional individuals, then it misses the concept of workplace bullying, said McKay.
“It’s a dynamic and it’s shifting all the time.”
Just like with sexual harassment, there’s now legislation in place around the issue, she said.
“But when you take a look at sexual harassment, that legislation has been in place for over 20 years and we’re still seeing cases coming forward that are hard to comprehend that (they) would slip under the radar. And the same is the case for workplace bullying. It is easy to look at as a piece of legislation, but it’s much more difficult to actually implement, put in place and make effective.”
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