Hr Professional
Hr Executive
Shreya Mishra
Research Fellow

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When Words Hurt

Human Resources Feature

by Trilby McGaw

Search for "workplace bullying" on the Internet and you will find a plethora of websites, articles and books devoted to describing, analyzing and eliminating the behaviour. Bullying is a widespread and enormous problem that seriously affects productivity and the emotional well-being of those who are bullied. Luckily, interest in the topic is booming while tolerance for the behaviour is waning.

Workplace bullying is an insidious problem that can be difficult to identify and to challenge, largely because bullies create a culture of fear and intimidation that discourages employees from asserting themselves. Bullying erodes self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence. This in turn disempowers employees and alienates them from one another making them less likely to unite against a bully.

Jacinta Kitt, in an article for Mandate Trade Union, says "Bullying is progressive and escalating. It is coercive, insensitive and cruel. It communicates disrespect through words and actions. It takes laughter and fun out of lives and work and it diminishes the 'feel good factors' in the workplace."

Examples of bullying include, but are by no means limited to:

Intimidating a person,

Yelling or using profanity,

Persistently criticizing a person, and

Belittling a person's opinions.

Most of us don't like conflict and we value our jobs. So when bullies are in management positions with the power to affect our working life, we tend to fear retribution, marginalization or worse being sacked. When you have a mortgage to pay or a family to support, standing up to a bully can feel like financial suicide. Putting up with abuse can seem like the safer option but this comes with a price.

Continuous aggressive behaviour intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a person affects the emotional and physical health of employees. Research suggests that employees who have been bullied in the workplace typically present with headaches, gastrointestinal problems, exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, burn-out, panic attacks, palpitations or dermatological disorders. Jacinta Kitt says that employees who have been bullied invariably exhibit great unhappiness and desperation. They are also frequently tearful, irritable, confused, sad or angry.

So why do organizations allow bullying to persist? Many managers are reluctant to address bullying for the same reasons that employees are. They lack the skills to confront bullies, they fear how the bully will retaliate and they hope the problem will just go away. This makes it unsurprising that studies show 1 in 5 people are bullied at work.

Impact on productivity

Research suggests that bullied employees waste between 10 and 52 per cent of their time at work. Instead of working, they spend time defending themselves and networking for support, thinking about the situation, being unmotivated and stressed, not to mention taking sick leave due to stress-related illnesses. Organizations who manage people well outperform those who don't by 30 to 40 per cent.

There is general consensus that workplace bullying results in negative and destructive organizational effects, including:

reduced commitment,

higher absenteeism,

high personnel turnover,

lack of employee motivation,

less creativity and vision,

poor morale, and

adverse publicity and poor public image.

Employees who are psychologically abused in the workplace have little time or mental energy for productivity. Abuse makes them disillusioned, exhausted, and burnt-out, unable to perform their jobs effectively or efficiently.

Profile of a bully boss

Research suggests that over 80 per cent of bullies are bosses and that a bully is equally likely to be a man or a woman. Jacinta Kitt's research indicates that the key characteristics of workplace bullies are selfishness, self-obsession, inadequacy, insecurity and total insensitivity toward others. They are extremely autocratic, exhibiting an unrelenting need to be fully in control. They dictate how and what decisions are made, allowing no real debate.

She says that bully bosses exaggerate their own contribution and are reluctant to acknowledge the contributions of others. They adopt a territorial approach to running their workplaces and often use loud voiced aggressive tactics to dominate decision making and day-to-day operations. An important feature of the bully is their compulsion to have their own needs met at all costs. This compulsion is also highlighted in the bully's constant demands for respect and consideration while persistently denying similar treatment to others.

Bully bosses, by their self-centered, selfish behaviour, effectively treat their subordinates as non-persons. They frighten and belittle their victims in a vain attempt to conceal their own fears and to make themselves look big. They diminish the confidence and integrity of others in order to deflect attention from their own inadequacies. They use their power to disempower others.

Addressing workplace bullying

Bullying only survives in a workplace if management allows it, either through lack of understanding of the problem, inadequate measures to deal with it and a tolerance of disrespectful, inappropriate behaviour.

There are many options available for employers to use when confronted with workplace bullying.

Don't blame the victim. You will often hear managers tell employees not to take it personally. This kind of statement shifts responsibility away from the bully. It implies that the employee is at fault and that there wouldn't be a problem if the employee was thicker skinned. It reinforces the bullying culture and isolates those who find the behaviour unacceptable.

Since bullying is a form of violence in the workplace, employers may wish to write a comprehensive policy that covers a range of incidents (from bullying and harassment to physical violence). They should make bullies aware of the consequences of their behaviour. A climate of unacceptability must be created in relation to bullying and all employees must be made aware that it is neither condoned nor tolerated.

Employers can provide a confidential counseling program to help employees manage the emotional consequences of bullying. Such programs can also be offered to bullies to assist them with managing their behaviour and in dealing with the mental health issues that cause it.

Employers may wish to consider sending managers and other interested staff to training courses in how to address and prevent workplace bullying to develop skills sets across organizations.

Employers can also use performance management processes to address bullying and initiate underperformance if bullying persists. To facilitate this process, employees should be encouraged to keep records of all bullying incidents which can be used as evidence when addressing behaviour with a bully.

If you feel that you are being bullied, discriminated against, victimized or subjected to any form of harassment, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recommends the following.

Firmly tell the person that his or her behaviour is not acceptable and ask them to stop. You can ask a supervisor or union member to be with you when you approach the person.

Keep a factual journal or diary of daily events. Record the date, time and what happened in as much detail as possible, the names of witnesses and the outcome of the event. Remember, it is not just the character of the incidents, but the number, frequency, and especially the pattern that can reveal the bullying or harassment.

Keep copies of any letters, memos, e-mails, faxes, etc., received from the person.

Report the harassment to the person identified in your workplace policy, your supervisor, or a delegated manager. If your concerns are minimized, proceed to the next level of management.

Legal implications

Employers, managers, supervisors and employees are facing new obligations and responsibilities in connection with the quality of work environments and workplace interactions. Behaviour such as yelling, loss of temper over minor issues, expressions of opinion in an obscene manner, offensive, foul and obscene language, belittling and demeaning remarks or behaviour is being legally characterized as personal and psychological harassment and as creating an unacceptable offensive environment. Such behaviour is construed as falling below standards of legally acceptable workplace interactions and conduct.

Many nations and jurisdictions have already adopted legislation to prevent workplace bullying and it is likely that others will follow suit. Some examples are included below.

On June 1, 2004, Quebec became the first North American jurisdiction to include protection against psychological harassment of employees in its Act Respecting Labour Standards. The Quebec legislation signals a changing legislative and judicial attitude to abuse in the workplace that is likely to be mirrored across Canada.

From 15 August 2005, employers in South Australia can be fined up to $100,000 for failing to "adequately manage" bullying behaviour. Other Australian states are currently considering adopting similar legislation to combat workplace bullying.

In the United Kingdom, there are means to obtain legal redress for bullying, most notably through the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 . In one notable case, Green v DB Group Services (UK) Ltd, a bullied worker was awarded over £800,000 in damages.

From India, Coimbatore
Hi Peer,
Thanks for sharing this with us, this is truly a detailed & analysed summary of the circumstances prevalent in many organizations & unfortunately mine as well :( .
I Planning to send this to the concerned person in my organization & Ofcourse getting into self analysis.
Warm Regards

From India, Bangalore
All your contributions to this site are splendid.
Full of information and careful analysis well documented.
Please keep posting.
I am in the HR Field for the past 1 year and love my job and want to excel in it.
So please remember to post useful articles, presentations and formats Also to . Can you tell me something about yourself if you do not mind?
Sireesha Deol

From India, Ahmadabad
hi peer
it was very good article.
but i think solution lies in understanding the reasons for such bullish behavior and not in legal implications.
many times the person who is bullying may have been the victim of such behavior in past . so he is removing his forestation on someone else.
in some case the person may be insecure of the person whom he is bullying. he does this to make that person leave the org on his own
in some cases the person has a sadist behavior or he may not be happy with his family so shows his frustration in workplace.
the reasons are endless.
the root cause lies in the person itself . so that cause has to be removed.

From India, Ahmadabad
Dear Sir,

I am no expert on consulting regarding workplace bullying, however as a research fellow and I am trying to reach out to Workplace Bullying Survivors or Witnesses or experts in the matter of bullying and psychological harassment in India , to study more on workplace bullying in India. Currently I am writing couple of papers on the topic and need participation from people like you who can give me some insight on the topic. I am a workplace bullying victim my self, and have heard similar stories from different people who have been suffering due to such negative behaviors at the workplace.

Though workplace bullying exist in India however it is not acknowledged by the organizations nor are there any laws against it. Hence I am trying to bring awareness about the prevalence of this problem through whatever little I can do. And so the this research is very important for me. I would really appreciate if you could let me know about any bullying incidences that you have witnessed or addressed. If it is ok with you I will send few questionnaires, if you could take out some time in filling them up.

I would also like to request you to spread the word among your friends who might have been a victim of bullying or who know anyone.

Please let me know about your concerns. I will be really obliged with your help in any little way.

Thanking you


Shreya Mishra

From India, Ahmadabad
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