Workplace Bullying – a conspiracy of silence?

I have been working in the stress management field for over 20 years and still it never ceases to amaze me that some of the issues I was dealing with then are still prevalent today.

In my role as an Expert Witness to the UK courts I am often required to give a professional opinion to the court as to whether an organisation had anti-bullying procedures in place, prior to an employee deciding to institute a compensation claim against them.  Too many times, employees would have made an official complaint to the HR department yet no action was ever taken.   Was it that HR were just uncaring and unsupportive?  Not necessarily so.  Too often it was because HR really didn’t really know what action to take. A lack of agreed policies and procedures left them uncertain whether they should support the employee’s claim about being bullied or just minimise the alleged behaviour by telling the complainant that there was little they could do. 

A recent survey

I read last week that the UK January Employment Index based on a survey of 2,600 people showed that 25% of the respondents have experienced workplace bullying with incidents ranging from colleagues taking credit for work that they didn’t do to public humiliation at the hands of a colleague, and it made me wonder what more could be done to tackle this conduct that is so often responsible for employees taking extended periods of sick leave and, often ultimately deciding to leave the company.

It is easy for anyone to identify the most obvious cases of intimidation, the times when you see a manager screaming at an employee or humiliating them in front of their team.  This is overt bullying behaviour but what about the bullying behaviour that goes on behind closed doors. The psychological bullying that can now take place on social networking sites is a more dangerous style of bullying as it is a much more difficult phenomenon to detect. Individuals can often be humiliated even by an anonymous posting on a website and social networking sites can facilitate remote intimidation that can cause serious psychological damage to the victim.

Counselling support

I have counselled many clients who would describe such intimidation as a ‘reign of terror’.  They became reluctant to go to work but had little option unless they decided to leave or report sick. In many cases, because of extreme stress, some eventually did leave the company which meant a serious financial loss both to them and to the organisation.

So what can an individual do?

First and foremost, they need to check if the organisation has a formal anti-bullying policy and procedure code and if it does then they should use the procedures laid down to make a complaint. Where procedures are not laid down then they need to speak to someone in authority in the company.  Raising the issue with HR is the recommended way forward.  However, as we saw above, the HR department may not always know what action to take.  But this is a risk that may have to be taken as there is strong evidence to show that bullying behaviour creates stress and ultimately health problems.  I have seen and dealt with many cases where individuals have experienced a nervous break-down as a direct result of workplace bullying.

What should the organisation do?

Make sure that your organisation has robust policies and procedures in place to combat workplace bullying and that your HR professionals and line managers are fully trained to recognise and deal effectively with such issues. An anti- bullying policy should state that the organisation will not tolerate unacceptable behaviour.

If people are in fear of going to work and watching the clock to get back to the safety of their home, then those people will be poor performers, poor sales people, poor producers and a bad advertisement for your firm. That competitive disadvantage will be reflected in your company’s image and your brand.

The learning is not to accept bullying behaviour in your department or workplace.

Key Learning Points

  1. Beware of bullying in the workplace and on social networks
  2. Intimidatory behaviour can cause psychological damage
  3. Unacceptable conduct results in competitive disadvantage

[Reprinted with the kind permission of Gulf News]

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