Tackling the bullies

Like sexual harassment, workplace bullying is unacceptable and employees should know how to recognize the signs and prevent the abuse

Workplace bullying is not easily recognized because it takes so many forms — from social isolation to excessive criticism — but with a recession in the works, this “interpersonal aggression” could become even more of an issue.

While people may be more reticent to speak out because their jobs are more sacred in an economic downturn, there could be an escalation in aggressive, belittling or threatening behaviour, says Gerry Smith, Toronto-based vice-president of organizational solutions and training at Shepell-fgi.

“I imagine there might be a tendency for management, during these hard times, to become more abusive, saying, ‘Do it or I can find somebody else among the ranks of the unemployed,’” he says.

Psychological violence is much more prevalent, and pervasive, in the workplace than physical violence, says Smith. And very often a target leaves an employer because she feels disenfranchised, which just allows a bully to continue to bully others. Unfortunately, there is not enough training around what employees need to do when confronted with aggressive behaviour like this, he says.

Workplace bullying can happen in any organization or industry and often occurs in places considered immune, such as mom-and-pop operations, churches, museums or universities, says Marilyn Noble, community co-chair of the research team on workplace bullying at the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Too many organizations assume appropriate workplace behaviour is a matter of common sense, she says.

“There’s a naive assumption because people are nice people, they’ll all play nicely at work. Well ‘Joe’ may be a really nice guy but in his role as manager, he’s awful,” she says. “Sometimes it’s lateral and sometimes it’s from the bottom-up — there are receptionists who can hold an organization hostage.”

Training tips

To help prevent workplace bullying, and cope with complaints, employers should ensure they have an effective, formal response that includes:

Building awareness: Employees should be made aware bullying takes many forms: humiliating people, discrediting a person, making rude remarks or gestures, making fun of personal convictions or political choices, insults, name-calling, unsuitable language, over-monitoring of work or withholding job responsibilities.

“We’re human beings and we all have our bad days,” says Smith. “But when someone’s bad day is becoming a bad month and a bad year, that’s really an abuse of the safety of the workplace.”

Providing more than policies: Organizations may have anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, but managers are often poorly equipped to enforce these strategies, says Patti Boucher, vice-president of client and consulting services at the Toronto-based Ontario Safety Association for Community and Healthcare. Organizations should ensure supervisors know what symptoms to watch for and encourage employees to report a situation before it escalates. Workplace violence is very common in health care, for example.

“When you’re caught up in the moment of patient care, you don’t recognize that this other type of violence exists, it’s almost insidious,” says Boucher. “It probably gets recognized once you’ve got a poisoned environment.”

Management should also be educated on their responsibility to create and maintain a safe work environment, not just physically but psychologically, says Smith. Managers should know when to intervene, as “willful neglect” to provide a safe environment can have criminal repercussions.

Peer support: Very often organizations put all the onus on the target, who feels vulnerable and is unlikely to “rock the boat,” but bystanders can play an important role by providing support to the target or reporting inappropriate behaviour to a superior, says Noble. That can include managers confronting fellow managers, or reporting their bullying behaviour to a higher-up.

“It’s very important to equip employees with both the skills and the mandate to step in if, as a third party, they observe something that shouldn’t be happening,” she says.

Providing a safe contact: If there isn’t an infrastructure in place — necessary reporting mechanisms, policies, procedures and reports — then workers are really reluctant to report. That is a really weak link, says Boucher, because feeling safe is “huge” to combat fears of being reprimanded or retaliated against.

Building a case: In many cases, confrontation of a bully doesn’t work because he is extremely defensive, says Smith. It’s best to talk to someone higher up in the organization and build a case of times, dates and places of instances so there’s substantial evidence.

And in documenting bullying behaviour, it’s important to convey not just what is done but how it’s done, so it’s not a subjective statement, says Noble. So instead of stating, “He intimidated me,” state “He blasted into my office, slammed the door, loomed over me and blocked my exit.”

She also recommends a diagnostic flowchart that goes from a suspected issue of bullying to include an initial screening of the situation, a judgment call on how to proceed, who is best equipped to deal with the situation, in-depth assessment, resolution options (such as training, coaching, mediation or group intervention aimed at the target, perpetrator, bystanders or work unit), followup monitoring, fine-tuning and a debriefing.

Specific training: Training should be tailored to each work environment and provide concrete examples, says Noble. For example, an employee who has a very hard time trying to fit in could be upset when he walks into a restaurant and sees the whole group having lunch. Some managers might say, “What my employees do on their own time is not my business” but under those circumstances, “this is going to come back into the workplace and poison that environment for the employee,” she says.

Counselling and coaching: Most bullies are “interpersonally clueless,” says Noble, and are often unaware of the impact they have on other people. So it’s important to provide external support and a referral network of experts.

“Imagine how the world falls out from under their feet and they’re floundering just as much as the person who’s been bullied, in a different way,” she says. “We’re trying to help them rethink how they behave.”

However, bullies can be self-aware, on a certain level, says Smith, and organizations should not protect someone who happens to be a manager praised for his revenue gains.

“Very often they’re sanctioned or told, ‘Be careful, watch yourself for a few weeks until things calm down.’ The only way to deal with it is to get rid of them, cleanse the place, but many organizations are not willing to take that stance.”

Returning to work: If there is a perception the bully received a slap on the wrist, the group should go through a more in-depth process as employers re-integrate them through the awkward transition (though there are constraints of confidentiality).

If bullies are thrown back into the same old work environment after training, “we’re asking for a repeat performance,” says Noble. “You have to reset the behavioural standard in the whole unit. Even if one key bully is removed, people revert to unhealthy coping behaviours they’ve learned during that situation because it’s become so ingrained.”

Latest stories