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How to identify workplace bullying

December 10, 2020
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how to identify workplace bullying

In order to understand how to identify workplace bullying, let's start with a quick definition.  Bullying is a negative interaction between people that usually results from a power imbalance.  It is Bullying if this behaviour is repeated.  Both bullies and their victims can have serious and lasting psychological problems.  For those who are the subject of bullying, the impacts on their life and wellbeing can be serious.  In extreme cases it can even lead to suicide.

Bullying includes unpleasant actions such as threats, spreading rumours, isolation or exclusion from someone or something; or verbal, emotional, or physically attacking someone.  Most people encounter bullying at school, either as a victim, a bully themselves, or both.  However, it is most commonly experienced by adults in the workplace.


What is workplace bullying?

Workplace bullying occurs at work as verbal, physical, social, or psychological abuse.  While it involves a power imbalance between the victim and perpetrator, the bully is not always the victim’s boss.  A manager may have positional power over an individual, but a workplace bulling can also be the victims peer, colleague, or even a regular customer.  Also, the boss can be bullied by the people they lead!  Individuals hold power over others in different ways.  This can be through physical strength, social dominance, perceived seniority, or skills and knowledge.  Workplace bullying can occur in any workplaces involving human interaction.  Retail, hospitality, factories, workshops, building sites, hospitals, schools, and offices, no environment is immune.   Volunteers, work experience people, apprentices, interns, casual and permanent employees can all be the victims of bullying.


When is not workplace bullying?

There are also examples where poor performers claim victimisation, when in fact they are the ones letting the team down.  This is where a manager needs to keep recorded records and also be mindful that what they are expecting is fair from an individual.   Setting goals and deadlines for people, rostering staff on/off, and other operational decisions is not bulling if it is fair, realistic, and appropriate for a persons role and experience.  Similarly, informing a worker about unsatisfactory performance in an honest, fair and constructive way is not bullying if you remain professional, calm, and stick to the facts.  This is no different with taking disciplinary action when necessary, it needs to be appropriate, justified, and adhere to a fair process.


What are the effects of bullying?

Bullying is a serious problem impacting teams and individuals everywhere.  Not only does it cause to serious impacts to the health and wellbeing of victims, but it impacts an employers obligations for providing a safe workplace.  Most countries include it in health and safety laws as a safeguard.  Boards of directors are accountable for protecting staff wellbeing, with managers sharing the responsibility.   So, while the cause of workplace bullying is not always a manager, it is their responsibility to identify it and act to protect their staff.

Physical symptoms of someone who may be being bullied, include:

  • Sudden changes in demeanour or behaviour
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Type of condition caused by stress (such as high blood pressure, panic attacks, insomnia)
  • Digestive problems, including ulcers, resulting from ongoing persecution
  • Shingles, psoriasis, and other skin conditions

A bullied worker is unable to perform their jobs nearly as well as if there were no bullying. Reasons include:

  • The health reasons enumerated above and others
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Loss of confidence or self-esteem
  • Feelings of shame and embarrassment
  • Fear and hopelessness
  • A sense of isolation and betrayal
  • Need to defend themselves
  • Avoidance of work that involves the bully.

Also, witnesses to bullying are also affected.

Workplace bullying affects employers, not only victims. Harmful by-products of this destructive practice include:

  • The work environment is described as toxic, where aggression, fear, blame, and suspicion are common.
  • Wider impacts to other staff who witness bullying behaviour[5].
  • A reduction in productivity.
  • Much higher rates of absenteeism
  • Compensation claims and legal issues​ resulting from breaches in health and safety laws.
  • Damage to an organisations reputation.


How can you identify bullying at work?

A critical skill in identifying workplace bullying is learning how to read the signs in others.  Often victims will not want to put a target on their back by reporting a bully.

Can you spot when vitimisation is occuring?  Here are some signs:

  • Their fellow workers seem to shut them out and ignore them.
  • The team exludes individuals from social events, such as morning breaks, lunches, and after work gatherings.
  • Their manager checks on them repeatedly without a seeming reason.
  • Assignment of new tasks occur without proper training or help, even when requested.
  • Their work is so frequently checked and they start to lose their confidence.
  • Unfair criticizm occurs regularly.
  • Individuals are more commonly the target of jests or practical jokes.
  • There is a pattern of documents, files, tools, or their personal belongings going missing.

Staff bully the manager by:

  • Frequently showing disrespect and even contempt to their manager.
  • Refusing to do what is asked.
  • Spreading rumours about their manager.
  • Withholding key information and/or deliberately making their manager seem incompetent.

Someone's body language can tell us a lot more about how someone is really feeling.  For more information, check out our related article here.


 How can you tell if you're a workplace bully?

How do know if you are a bully? Some signs:

  • You repeatedly upset people around you. Do most people take offence at what you say and do, do they complain about your behaviour, do they express distaste, displeasure even disgust at your actions? If this happens, a red flag has been raised. You should take this very seriously.
  • Do you lack empathy? This means putting yourself in other's shoes and feeling what they feel. Do you care? You should.
  • Are you aggressive? Aggression is usually a very negative emotion. There are some situations, such as in sport or the military, where aggression is vitally needed but usually not in the workplace.
  • Do you gossip? A spreader of malicious rumours? Bullies often do this.
  • Are you happiest around insecure people? Those who will follow you blindly and those who will be your victims.
  • When someone else fails at some work task or goal, do you feel relieved or happy?
  • Is it common for you to use your position to exert control over people? Common examples include giving forceful directives, using your title to get your way, or even shouting.  This is abuse of power.

The above are tell-tale signs that you may be a bully.  If you notice any of these traits in yourself then you better do something about it before someone else does.  All bullies eventually get their just desserts!  Still not sure if that's you?  Then we recommend reading our article on improving self-awareness.


How should managers deal with bullies?

So, what does a manager do about bullying?  At work, there will be differences of opinions and conflicts can arise; this is quite normal and healthy. However, workplace bullying is fundamentally different and has the potential to undermine an entire team/organization.  As a good manager, you must take bullying seriously and deal with it quickly.

Here are some steps:

  • Take bullying seriously.  Telling someone to "toughen up" is not an appropriate response.
  • Learn all you can about bullying (additional recommended reading below).
  • Make sure your organisation has a written bullying policy [an example is available here].
  • Learn how to identify victimisation.
  • Gather facts of what has occurred.
  • Make the bully accountable for their behaviour.
  • Try and conduct your dealing with bullying privately.
  • Next, it is best to not have both the bully and bullied together to go through the issues.
  • Make sure you keep accurate records of all bullying and your dealings with it.
  • Remember you may be the bully. Be honest with yourself and ask the opinion of others who you trust (and refer to the next section).

As a leader, you are responsible for making sure that bullying does not occur and to lead by example.


Dealing with yourself if you're a workplace bully?

Earlier we listed some signs that you may be a workplace bully.  If your manager is doing their job then they will know what you're doing, and you will be held to account.  Either way, identifying that you have a problem is a difficult but most significant first step in dealing with it.   The next is to reduce the power imbalance by apologizing to your victims and asking for their forgiveness.  Followeup immediately by asking them for feedback and advice on removing this negative behaviour from your modus operandi.   These steps are difficult, but critical if you care about yourself and others.   Failure to act will have more dire consequenses for you and your victims.


Recommended reading:

Take the Bully by the Horns - S Horn

Successful Leaders Aren't Bullies - M Paknis

The Bully at Work: What You Can Do - G Namie


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