Only 1 in 3 employers taking action to end bullying: Survey

Experts promote benefits of informal resolution to workplace conflict

Only 1 in 3 employers taking action to end bullying: Survey
Empowering employees with phrases such as “that makes me uncomfortable” encourages early and informal resolution to incidents of workplace bullying, according to experts. Aleutie/Shutterstock

More than half of Canadians have experienced bullying at work, according to a survey of 1,875 employees across the country.

Fifty-five per cent admit they or a colleague have been bullied in the workplace. Verbal harassment was the most common form, at 58 per cent, while 21 per cent experienced physical bullying and 19 per cent experienced emotional bullying, according to the survey by Forum Research in Toronto.

Two-thirds of employees who identified as having a disability, and 61 per cent of workers between the ages of 55 to 64, said they have endured or witnessed bullying on the job, compared to 57 per cent of those between 25 and 34.

Results like this one year into the #MeToo era are perplexing, said Lorne Bozinoff, president of Forum Research.

“What planet is everybody living on? Like, really, where is everybody? In this day and age, yes, this is surprising.”

The culture of reporting in the workplace hasn’t yet reached bullying in the same way it has for sexual harassment, he said.

When the bully is a direct supervisor or boss, it can create an “awkward situation” or barrier in terms of reporting, said Bozinoff, as many workers want to refrain from “rocking the boat.”

“Maybe people don’t want to get involved,” he said. “Some of these people, it didn’t happen to them personally; they saw it in the workplace, so they did nothing about it.”

Going over a direct leader’s head to report to a human resources professional doesn’t necessarily appeal as an alternative, said Bozinoff.

Fifty-two per cent of respondents to the survey said they reported the bullying, but only one in three employers took action, he said.

“That’s a big stat. No action is being taken.”

And while two-thirds of workers said their organization has policies in place to target bullying, 37 per cent said the policy is ineffective, said Bozinoff.

“Maybe there should be less focus now on the policy per se… and more focus on lowering the barriers to reporting it in the first place.”

Identifying bullying

Going forward, employers will need to seriously reflect on what is taking placing in their workplace, said Emily McDonald, lawyer and consultant at HR Atlantic in Charlottetown.

Workplace bullying is “persistent conflict and behaviours between people,” and is often more subtle and difficult to identify than other forms of harassment, she said.

“Some individual acts that can be very subtle may appear at first glance to be really insignificant, but they all add up and lead to a feeling of bullying,” said McDonald.

“It can be harder to identify and then deal with because there’s always going to be some amount of interpersonal conflict as people don’t get along. The question is, really, ‘When is it crossing that line?’ And I think a lot of employers are doing work on that, but it’s difficult because it really connects to workplace culture.”

Employers need to continually raise awareness of bullying in the workplace, not just in the onboarding process, said Lara Barley, director of human resources at Family Services of Greater Vancouver, a British Columbia charity for vulnerable people.

“What I actually have noticed is that the more training we do, and the more we talk about this, the higher our incidents and our reporting is for these issues, which is good,” she said.

“It’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean the world is getting worse, it just means we’re raising the issue to the forefront of people’s minds.”

Bullying isn’t getting worse, according to Barley. Rather, awareness of the issue is increasing alongside workers’ confidence to address it in surveys.

“Obviously, it’s a really important topic… I think we are making progress,” she said, noting each Canadian province has enacted legislation requiring respectful workplace and anti-harassment policies to be in place within organizations.

With more attention being paid to bullying and harassment, employers must seriously consider if inappropriate behaviour is being condoned, said McDonald.

“There is really a significant shift socially that people are talking about it, and are expressing their concerns about the workplace,” she said. “

And we’re still just catching up to that in terms of the formal process and coming forward.”

Many workers are still nervous to identify themselves in a formal process for fear of retaliation and further conflict with their colleagues, said McDonald.

“That’s where the more proactive and cultural change is really important in workplaces.”

Policy, culture

In general, policy is the “very basic starting point” when it comes to workplace bullying, said McDonald.

“A good policy is not going to be a solution.”

Setting expectations and providing education is also necessary, as is assuring workers that is it OK to come forward with complaints, she said.

“People are not going to come forward if they have a fear about what is going to happen to them if they do so, or if they do not feel like it’s going to be taken seriously. Those are important things for employers to manage and address up front.”

Encouraging informal resolution to workplace conflict is also beneficial, said McDonald.

“When conflict goes on over a long period of time, it festers and it creates all kinds of other symptoms, other challenges, in a workplace,” she said.

“When you can support people and bystanders to intervene and speak up and share concerns early on — either in the moment, or shortly after an event happened — that is a really positive step forward, because it’s going to be easier to deal with and address at that stage than down the road.”

“Doing so effectively requires some skill,” said McDonald. “So that requires front-line managers and supervisors having the skills to identify issues and to have some difficult conversations.”

Workers should be empowered to say phrases such as “That makes me uncomfortable,” and expect similar responses from bystanders, she said.

But encouraging employees to raise concerns directly with the perpetrator depends on the severity of the incident in question, said Barley.

Extreme sexual harassment wouldn’t warrant an informal discussion in the same way as an off-colour joke would, she said.

Employers should ensure informal resolution is everyone’s responsibility, said McDonald.

“It should be on everyone. It’s not just on the person who feels that they’re subject to bullying. It’s on the supervisor; it’s on the co-workers. It’s on everyone in a workplace to say, ‘OK, that behaviour’s not acceptable and we have to deal with it.’”

Most workplace anti-bullying policies include this type of action, but it may be up to leadership to spell it out and encourage it, said McDonald.

The remedy to workplace harassment lies in raising awareness of the issue and creating opportunities for staff to come forward with concerns, said Barley.

Senior leadership needs to be on board in terms of creating a better workplace culture, she said.

And it’s important to provide multiple avenues and leaders for employees to lodge complaints with, said Barley.

“It falls on all layers (of employees), right from the board to the CEO to the leadership team, right down to the front-line staff,” she said.

“It’s really just encouraging leaders to have the emotional intelligence and taking the time to just do those little reach-outs.”

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