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What You Need to Know About Bullying in the Workplace

Could workplace bullying be affecting your business?

Consider the following:

  • The Canada Safety Council estimates that bullied employees spend 10 to 52% of their time networking for support.
  • Workplace bullying creates conflict. Chronic unresolved conflict is a decisive factor in 50% of employee departures.

Bullying in the workplace is gaining attention as workplaces become increasingly diverse, attitudes about acceptable behaviour change, and the direct and indirect costs of bullying are identified.

How can you tackle bullying in your workplace? Start by becoming aware of the problem.

What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying is a repeated pattern of behaviour intended to intimidate, offend, degrade, or humiliate a particular person or group—the bully’s target. Although it can include physical abuse or the threat of abuse, bullying usually causes psychological rather than physical harm.

Bullying affects the workplace through:

  • Poor performance, reduced quality, and missed deadlines
  • Increased absenteeism, turnover, and overtime
  • Reduced morale
  • Sabotage when a bullied employee retaliates, e.g. by deliberately failing to meet a quota or a deadline
  • Poor decision-making and increased likelihood of injury or unsafe behaviour
  • Increased need for supervision
  • Increased workload for co-workers as a result of the target’s underperformance
  • Increased cost of employee assistance programs
  • Potential legal liability
  • Recruitment and training costs to replace employees who leave because of bullying behaviour

Anyone can be a workplace bully or the target of a bully—employees, managers, and clients. An organization’s culture can mimic bullying behaviour when it fosters an environment that:

  • Expects extra long hours of work on a regular basis
  • Labels those who complain as weak or inadequate
  • Dismisses those who admit to, or show signs of, stress.

Studies show that people often put up with bullies because they’re afraid of jeopardizing their careers if they take action.

For a more detailed description of the effects of bullying, check out Bullies at Work: What to Know, What You Can Do.

What’s the difference between bullying and a strong management style?

A strong management style puts the business interests of the organization first by relying on consistency, fairness, responsibility, and respect. Effective managers offer objective comments and constructive feedback to motivate their employees.

Managers who bully do so to hide their own inadequacy. They may excuse their bullying behaviour by claiming they are trying to encourage better performance. In fact, bullying causes underperformance (or makes it worse) because it distracts employees from their duties.

How do I identify workplace bullying?

Just because bullying isn’t obvious in your workplace, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Workplace bullying is often subtle.

The following suggestions can help you identify bullying behaviour:

  • Look at your organization’s culture, structure, and management style. Strong hierarchical structures and intense business demands can foster bullying.
  • Analyze absenteeism, productivity, turnover, stress-related leaves, and early retirement—does a pattern emerge that suggests problems in a specific area?
  • Conduct confidential exit interviews and employee opinion surveys that ask direct questions about bullying. Watch for signs of discontent or lack of motivation. Pay attention to similar information coming from several sources, including employees, clients, colleagues, etc.
  • Be aware of comments that normalize bullying, such as:
    • “He needs to grow a thicker skin.”
    • “She’s too sensitive.”
    • “Yes, he’s a jerk, but what can you do?”
    • “Sure, she’s tough, but how else are you going to motivate people?”

What can I do about bullying in my organization?

The best defense against workplace bullying is a clearly written policy telling everyone associated with your organization—employees, managers, clients, and suppliers—that bullying is unacceptable. If you already have an anti-harassment policy, add specific provisions that address bullying. Consult with your management committee or create a committee to deal with bullying.

Make a commitment to circulate, post, and promote your policy and include it in training and orientation programs at all levels of your organization.

An effective policy*:

  • Is developed by both management and employees
  • States clearly that your organization will not tolerate workplace bullying and is committed to preventing it
  • Defines bullying in concrete language, including examples of unacceptable behaviour and conditions
  • Includes information about the potential risks of bullying behaviour
  • Encourages the reporting of all bullying incidents
  • Ensures that no reprisals will be made against those who report bullying
  • Outlines the procedure for reporting, investigating, and resolving all complaints, both formally and informally
  • Ensures that all cases will be treated fairly, all sides will be heard, and confidentiality will be maintained by providing an impartial third party to help with the resolution of any situation
  • Makes a commitment to provide confidential support for targets
  • Makes a commitment to monitor and review the policy regularly.

You can also discourage bullying in your workplace by*:

  • Encouraging everyone to treat each other in a respectful and professional manner
  • Working out solutions before situations become serious
  • Treating all complaints seriously and dealing with them promptly and confidentially
  • Training supervisors, managers, and staff to deal effectively with complaints and address issues promptly, whether or not a formal complaint has been filed.

*From OSH Answers Fact Sheets: Bullying in the Workplace, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). Adapted with permission of CCOHS, 2007.

When an investigation identifies bullying behaviour, your policy should support those involved by:

  • Ensuring that the bullying stops
  • Providing access to counselling by trained volunteers or professionals who are familiar with the issues involved in bullying
  • Honouring any request by the target for a transfer. However, if the bully and target must be separated and the target hasn’t requested a transfer, ensure that it’s the bully who is transferred or suspended.
  • Offering mediation services and monitoring mediation agreements.

Bullying behaviour may be unintentional, or it may be the result of organizational issues such as excessive workloads or inadequate support. In these situations, training, mentoring, or counselling may help bullies recognize and change their behaviour. Organizational change may also help prevent bullying.

What are the legal implications of workplace bullying?

Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada with specific legislation addressing psychological harassment in the workplace. To date, Alberta has no specific legislation addressing workplace bullying. However:

Employers could also face legal liability if an employee claims that workplace bullying resulted in constructive dismissal. In this situation, an employee may claim the employer fundamentally breached their contract of employment by putting the employee’s personal health or safety in danger, leaving them no choice but to resign. For more information about constructive dismissal and other related legal issues, check out Workplace harassment and violence.

In a unionized workplace, bullying may expose an employer to grievance procedures.

Prevent workplace bullying by creating a clear policy on bullying, recognizing the signs of bullying, and taking appropriate action when it occurs. Not only will these steps improve productivity, morale, and customer satisfaction, they will also help you to protect your most important asset—the people who work for you.

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