Workplace Bullying Definitions

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What Is Bullying?

Employers and managers find themselves faced with a veritable minefield when it comes to dealing with this issue. One of the biggest problems is defining what constitutes bullying. It’s not always easy to distinguish between behavior that is tough but fair and abusive behavior, such as intimidation or harassment; nor is it possible to define bullying by the number of times an incident occurs.

The following checklist will help determine if you need to take action:

• does the individual or group feel that there is no alternative but to leave their job?

• do they dread coming into work each day?

• are they fearful of speaking up, asking questions, offering ideas, or participating in meetings?

• are they reluctant to take on additional work?

• do they feel unable to commit themselves fully to their jobs because of an overwhelming sense of anxiety and insecurity at work?

• have their working relationships with colleagues deteriorated so much that they cannot function as a team anymore?

• have they become the butt of jokes, the scapegoat, the one who’s always given the rotten jobs?

• does their work suffer because they’re so tired and stressed out that their creativity has evaporated?

• do they feel that the abuse is impacting on their physical or mental health?

If you answer “Yes” to any of these questions, then you have a bullying situation on your hands.

Bullying – The Key Issues:

Physical violence is the most obvious and frightening aspect of bullying. But there are many other types of bullying – including psychological and social – that can be just as upsetting if they go unchecked for a long period of time. Bullying can occur in any type of relationship, but it’s most common among children and teenagers. It’s very unlikely that most children or teenagers will try to bully adults, but for some unfortunate individuals, bullying is a way of life.

Some bullies are very direct with their words and actions – they want you to know immediately that they are picking on you. But often bullies are more subtle in their approach so it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s going on. If you’re unclear, ask the person concerned if they are happy with how you are treating them. Other bullies simply cannot bring themselves to admit their behavior is unacceptable.

That doesn’t make it any less stressful for those on the receiving end of bullying, though. As well as physical violence, bullying can include emotional abuse; verbal abuse; cyber-bullying; the misuse of power and position by a person or group to intimidate others.

The Problem of Bullying in the Workplace:

• Employees complain about being harassed by a manager, co-worker or customer.

• The employer is reluctant to acknowledge the problem and assumes it will go away on its own.

• The bullying becomes more severe and pervasive.

• Coworkers may resent having to assume additional work so as to cover up for their co-worker.

• The employer may minimize the seriousness of the issue when it finally does take action.

• The employer’s actions are perceived by all employees to be unfair.

• The morale of the organization declines and productivity is negatively affected.

Summary: Bullying at work can become a problem for an organisation, if people are not prepared to take action at the right time.

What people can do about bullying?

• Speak up or speak out about an incident of bullying, support someone who is bullied, be on the lookout for bullying behavior in yourself and others;

• Encourage positive behaviors; encourage fairness;

• Report incidents of unacceptable workplace behavior;

• Be aware of workplace policies that apply to harassment and know how to follow them.

Overcoming Workplace Bullying

If you have already been bullied at work, the following steps will help you recover from this experience:

• make a list of all your strengths and skills. You may find it helpful to do this in writing; your list might include your communication skills, patience, people skills, thoughtfulness, creativity, loyalty to the company and/or any other relevant strengths.

• make a list of all the reasons you like working where you are (e.g., good work hours; friendly colleagues; convenient location).

• come up with some specific, practical goals to help you feel better about yourself (e.g., volunteer for a task that you would normally avoid; ask your boss if you can be moved away from the bully).

• establish some daily goals so that you don’t become overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done.

• have your psychiatrist or psychologist prescribe medication for you if you are suffering from sleep problems, depression, anxiety, or panic attacks.

• take time to do things that you enjoy (e.g., spend one day each week doing something that’s relaxing and/or exciting).

• allow yourself to feel better about yourself by trying some new clothes; getting a haircut or a new hairstyle.

• allow yourself to feel good about yourself by going out with friends – perhaps for a meal, coffee, or a movie – to have some fun and socialize.

• treat yourself every day to something nice (e.g., take a hot bath; buy yourself a chocolate bar or a tube of your favorite lip balm.

The Legal Position of workplace bullying & harassment:

Harassment is generally defined as any repeated, unwanted behavior that is based on a protected characteristic (race, color, national origin, sex, religion or disability), and that either happens frequently or happens once but has a lasting impact. It can be verbal (spoken), nonverbal (gestures) and physical.

An employer’s action may create a “hostile work environment” if it is severe or pervasive enough to make a (reasonable) person believe that the conditions of employment are altered and the working environment is hostile or abusive.

• Unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute harassment when submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

• Unwanted conduct or verbal abuse based on race/color/national origin constitutes unlawful harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

• Unwanted conduct or verbal abuse based on religion constitutes unlawful harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (This does not include such things as simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not extremely serious.)

• Unwanted conduct or verbal abuse based on age constitutes unlawful harassment under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

• Unwanted conduct or verbal abuse based on sex constitutes unlawful harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which added “because of sex” to the list of prohibited bases for discrimination.

The person receiving unwelcome conduct need not be the specific target of the harassment, but can be anyone within the work environment who finds the conduct sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile working environment.

• Hostile Work Environment: It is unlawful for an employer to permit a “hostile work environment,” which is based on race, sex or any other covered characteristic, in which the workplace is made abusive, hostile, or offensive by co-workers, supervisors or customers.

• Filing a Claim: If you believe that you have been harassed at work because of your race/color/national origin, religion, age and/or sex and want to do something about it:

• Speak with someone in your organization’s human resources or personnel department, if there is one.

• If you don’t get the results you want, contact one of the public organizations in for advice and/or to find out about how to file a discrimination charge with the appropriate government agency.

Organisational Factors:

• What are the organisations policies and practices?

• Is there training for managers on how to avoid workplace bullying & harassment?

• Are all employees made aware of what is expected of them by the organisation’s policies, practices and codes of conduct?

• Do staff feel able to report concerns about wrongdoing or unfair treatment confidentially? How can concerns be reported?

• Is there a clear reporting structure so that those who have been bullied or harassed know where to go for help?

The Company:

The company should have some form of disciplinary or corrective procedures in place. The policy and procedures should place a strong emphasis on the victim being able to report offences anonymously if they wish. It should be made clear that the company will respect and protect the confidentiality of reporters; that they will take allegations seriously; and that they will investigate any such allegations in a professional, thorough and sensitive manner. Employees who report incidents should be commended not only for their honesty but also for their courage.

• The policy should clearly state that bullying is unacceptable, that it will not be tolerated, and that perpetrators should expect to face disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.

• The policy should meet legal requirements in terms of being accessible, clear, concise, effective and fair.

• Managers should be given training on how to identify the signs of bullying; what procedures to follow when an incident comes to light; how to deal with the aftermath of bullying; and how to support victims after an incident.

• The policy should also include help for managers who are faced with a bully in their team, such as guidelines on when they should involve HR or enlist outside professionals.

• A thorough investigation needs to be carried out in every case, and this should be done by an experienced professional.

• The policy is then implemented through good management practice.

The Managers:

Managers need to know how best to deal with bullies in their team (see above). It can help if there are supportive interpersonal relationships between managers; where possible, staff should feel comfortable confiding in their line manager rather than reporting the incident to HR, who might not understand their concerns.

• Managers should be aware of the stress that bullying can cause to everyone involved, including themselves.

• If a manager suspects or becomes aware of bullying, they should investigate whether it has occurred and take appropriate action if necessary.

• Managers need to act quickly to stop the bullying from escalating, perhaps by stepping in when they notice a problem or alerting HR to a potential ongoing issue.

• They should then support the victim and provide them with ongoing coaching and training.

• The perpetrator needs to be dealt with firmly, perhaps through counselling or written warnings.

• Managers need to monitor the situation over time to ensure that the needed changes have been made and that both parties are now getting on with their work.

• If a manager is the perpetrator, they need to be dealt with firmly through counselling or disciplinary action.

In some cases, victims may need access to professional psychological support from an independent practitioner, such as a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

The Company’s Human Resources Department:

An outside consultant brought in to investigate claims of bullying can be useful in bringing about change in the workplace culture. They can help manage all stages of an investigation – from assessing allegations and interviewing witnesses to writing a report with recommendations for changes that need to be made. Such experts may recommend that a counsellor or HR specialist can provide advice and support to staff who report an incident.

The Company’s Legal Department:

Most companies have legal professionals on the payroll who can advise on carrying out investigations and taking action against bullying. They can also assess how strong a case there is for taking disciplinary action, and what course of action to take.

The Company’s Senior Management Team:

If there is a serious incident, the management team should be informed at an early stage so that they are aware of what is happening. They can also provide support for managers involved in cases of bullying, especially if it affects their ability to lead effectively. It may even be necessary to involve the people at the very top if there has been no change in workplace culture or behaviour after an investigation, and action taken by managers.

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