Why does workplace bullying keep happening?

Recent incidents highlight importance of employee education, training, leadership
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/28/2016

This past year has seen multiple high-profile reports of workplace bullying and harassment in the media.

These include alleged bullying at the Calgary and Ottawa police services, accusations of harassment at the Vancouver School Board as well as workers at the Nunavut government, Toronto Star, CBC, RCMP and WestJet.

Considering all the coverage — and newer legislation meant to stop such behaviour — why does this harmful practice still happen?

Some experts believe there will always be persecutors in the workplace.

“Bullying is a fact of life, unfortunately. It’s something that’s going to happen no matter what we do, no matter what legislation the government will enact,” said Daniel Chodos, partner at Whitten & Lublin in Toronto. “Bullying continues because we are human beings.”

There is also greater recognition of the issue, according to Diane Mason, owner of consulting firm Proactive HR in Hamilton, Ont.

“The general public are becoming more aware both through social media and television and some high-profile cases that bring it to the forefront,” she said. “We as a society talk about it more.”

As provinces continue enacting new legislation — such as British Columbia, which implemented anti-bullying legislation in 2012 — people are much more aware of their human rights, according to BullyFreeBC spokesperson Robyn Durling in Vancouver.

“People are just aware of
bullying on a different level,” he said. “Things across Canada have changed drastically in the last five to 10 years.”

In the case of the Calgary Police Service, traditional police culture as a paramilitary group is one reason why bullying and harassment may be prevalent, said Durling.

“Those organizations were originally structured around a form of hierarchical bullying and so they really need to change because it’s inbred into that system, and has been for a long period of time.”

Most of these groups — which are historically male-dominated — are struggling to become more inclusive, said Pat Ferris, a partner at Janus Associates Psychological Services in Calgary.

“You’re going to get some tension in that mentality.”

 There is also a fine line between constructive criticism and bullying, said Chodos.

“It’s unfortunate sometimes that the line between humour and harassment can be a little fuzzy: What one person finds humorous is something another person deems to be bullying or a violation of human rights,” he said.

“Some people take these things more seriously than others, and nobody’s wrong.”

Constructive criticism is a management right but bullying can be characterized as taking it one step too far into a personal attack, said Mason. “It’s usually about abuse of power.”

Impact of bullying

The risks to workers and companies can be devastating, according to Lorna McTavish, founder of Project Millie, an organization dedicated to bringing visibility to workplace bullying, in Burlington, Ont.

“If you don’t deal with it, there could be increased absenteeism, higher turnover, decreased morale and productivity and poor customer service,” she said.

Bullied workers can become disengaged, not only from the workplace, but from all personal contact, said McTavish.

“It’s very serious. They feel so knocked down,” she said. “I’ve talked to people who have been in a job for 30 years, and now they don’t have jobs and they don’t have any support because the people that they worked with kind of backed away (from addressing the issue) because they don’t want anything to happen to them.”

People who have been bullied at work can have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, said Ferris.

“We need to look at this as a severe injury, not just conflict, not just the stress response, but something that goes in many cases well beyond that. If they are off work, getting them back into the workplace is often incredibly difficult.”

Best practices

When bullying does take place, it is incumbent upon management and HR to properly address it, said Mason.

“It’s what you do with it that counts: Do you take it seriously or do you just fluff it under the carpet?”

Companies must be willing to investigate the incidents promptly and provide remedial action after the investigation.

“Sometimes, people don’t know that they crossed the line,” she said.

HR specialists need to be sufficiently trained to investigate allegations after something has happened, said Ferris.

“It takes great skill and understanding of human dynamics.”

It shouldn’t be enough to say, “Well you didn’t use the word harassment, therefore, we are not doing anything about it,” said Chodos. “A worker may not necessarily use the terms ‘bullying’ and ‘harassment’ when reporting something and they may not necessarily do it in writing, which means you have to look for certain cues in what’s being said, and if you are at all in doubt, if there’s an HR (department)... go speak to that person.”

But a probe into a possible bullying incident can be costly, according to Mason, with average external investigations costing an employer $10,000.

“Most companies would prefer to spend their money in other ways,” she said. “It’s better to be putting the money into training and policy to prevent it and to protect the company’s good name and to protect the workers.”

The challenge is to get the message across clearly throughout the organization that harassment or bullying will not be tolerated in any form, said Mason, adding strong policies must strictly forbid bullying and harassment.

And annual training, especially with new hires, is essential.

“It sets a standard and code of conduct and people know what’s expected of them and when they potentially cross the line,” she said.

Even before a new employee is hired, it is prudent to ensure a company is not hiring a future bully, said Ferris.

“Where HR can be very effective is starting at the beginning, selecting people into the organization that show emotional maturity, compassion and the capacity to treat people with dignity.”

Training budgets are also needed “to train everybody to take responsibility and accountability,”  he said, and it is best practice to promote “good bystanders” because “a bystander is one of the most powerful people in the dynamic.”

A company also needs to train all managers and employees on workplace harassment rules.

“If you have a manager that isn’t aware of their obligations and therefore doesn’t take a bullying complaint seriously, it can get the company into a heap of trouble,” said Chodos.

Good work accomplished by HR is fruitless without buy-in from top-level management, said Durling.

“One of the things that’s a big challenge for the HR department is whether or not there’s a culture that’s created from the top-down that either supports them or doesn’t. There’s no point in having an HR department that is paying lip service to ‘Let’s not bully’ when in fact the management culture is one of bullying.”

Each boss should always cast a critical eye at his own behaviour and favour compassion over abrasiveness, said Ferris.

“They need to understand the difference between tough management and bullying,” he said, adding a manager should foster a culture inside a workgroup that will stand up to bullying, look out for each employee and create a “collaborative, close team that actually cares about each other.”

It’s about being a good role model, said Mason.

“As a manager, always hold yourself up to the highest level of accountability and mirror the organization’s values in your own conduct,” she said. “It’s important because they are in a leadership position and the workers don’t see them engaging in behaviour that could be deemed to be inappropriate or harassing or abusive of power or bullying.”

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