Workplace bullying is really insidious because it’s subtle, and often hidden or obscured beneath a base layer of fear and willful ignorance. It can literally destroy people’s lives, their health and their happiness. It can also completely sink an organization or company. So then, why does it still happen so often, and what can we do about it? I explore this topic with Dr. Tracy – a highly experienced educator, small business consultant, entrepreneur and master coach.
About Dr. Tracy
Dr Tracy started out as a teacher at a secondary school – then he opened his own school for kids who had trouble finishing public school – a really rewarding experience. Then, he left the school system to start a software company that built HR information systems to help automate the process so HR professionals could spend more time dealing directly with people rather than administration. Dr. Tracy then moved into consulting with small and medium sized businesses. From here, he went into coaching – working with CEOs, owners and employees to help unlock the full potential of the individuals and the businesses. He helps ensure companies have the best people in the best positions doing the best work – and that they are happy doing that work.
Dr. Tracy realized that bullying was playing a significant negative role in businesses while working with a company that was struggling with cash flow and profitability. Through conversations with employees there, he realized that the problem wasn’t with the company but with the owners and partners who had been exhibiting bullying behaviour.
Bullying is similar in the workplace and school yard
Workplace bullying shares similarities with bullying in the schoolyard. It’s repeated health harming and mistreatment of one or more workers. It can take the form of verbal abuse, threatening or humiliating conduct, sabotage, “psychic terrorism”, harassment, emotional abuse. Workplace bullying is often silent because it’s ignored – we classify it as something that happens to someone else. Bullying is done to control or destroy another person, often with the intent of forcing them out of the company. It assaults dignity, trustworthiness, confidence and self-worth. The objective is to make the target to feel responsible and guilty. It isolates and confuses them. It’s long-lasting, repeated and increases with severity over time. We don’t often see it until it’s already at an extreme level.
Impacts of bullying on the individual
Symptoms and impacts of bullying behaviour on individuals include: people with very negative feelings, anxiety, guilt, shame, confusion, paranoia, lack of self-worth, forms of grief, high levels of stress, loss of concentration, sleep disturbances, nightmares, headaches, depression, exacerbates mental illness, flare-ups to existing conditions, upset stomach and IBS, social withdrawal, self-isolation, lack of an interest in life in general, suicidal thoughts and attempts, increased anger and outbursts, and even violence related to revenge.
Bullying is a process – it doesn’t just ‘happen’ – it evolves over time. It takes away a portion of a person’s life.
Impacts of bullying on the organization
Impact of bullying on the organization – morale drops leading to decreased productivity, time off due to stress and illness, damage to reputation and brand name due to ‘word of mouth’. People may be so ‘infected’ by the poor culture and bullying environment, they speak quite negatively about the company. Increased legal cost, insurance premiums, training and recruitment costs due to high turnover. This cost can often double what it costs to hire and retain an employee for a year. The whole organization ends up paying for bullying. Not to mention the time spent dealing with bullying issues and the fallout. It needs to be addressed at the front end, because by the time it actually shows up visibly there are already many complications and damage done.
Where does toxic culture come from?
The owners of a company can in many ways encourage a toxic culture of bullying. In an example Dr. Tracy encountered, one of the owners had some serious psychological issues himself that he carried around, leading to a certain extent of bullying behaviour and a dictatorial management style. Great leaders don’t create toxic cultures.
Part of the bullying process often involves termination of one or more individuals – and this creates a layer of fear in the rest which can push bullying behaviour into ‘silent mode’, still creating a poor environment for workers. Often people call this a ‘toxic workplace culture”. Blaming poor workplace functioning and conditions on ‘poor culture’ can sometimes be a convenient way to overlook, ignore or turn a blind eye to what’s going on beneath the surface – bullying behaviour.
Then, when the behaviour is allowed to continue, bullying becomes almost like a pandemic – others pick up on the behaviour and learn that this is the expected way to behave. They become accomplices. Trying to find and address the root cause of the bullying, while dealing with accomplices makes it very difficult. It can evolve into group bullying.
In group bullying, what often happens is there’s a person with some level of power or leadership who practices bullying tactics. Then, those who are watching and following them learn that this behaviour is acceptable, and almost expected. This creates a group bullying effect which isolates one group from others – leading to things like exclusion of others, excessive criticism, collective insults, threats, and put downs of others not part of this group. It becomes insidious.
What can you do when there’s a power imbalance?
So then what can be done in a situation like this, where someone is at the mercy of an individual with more ‘power and influence’ or against a group? It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to not get caught up in it, not believe it, not take it.
You must report it in some way. An HR consultation would be the first stop. You can also speak with a trusted supervisor or person in the company to raise the issue. However, it’s almost self-defeating because people are afraid to raise issues because they’re afraid to lose their jobs.
On a one to one basis – you don’t want to ‘play with it’. Don’t come back and retort. Don’t try to defeat the bully. Bullies come to work as bullies, they are well-practiced. Step back, isolate from them, stay out of their way and don’t engage. It won’t be a winning battle – it’s best to try and diminish their power by removing yourself from it as much as possible. Not just physically removing yourself, but mentally and emotionally as well. It’s not easy in a workplace.
Creating a bully-free workplace
From the top down, there must be a statement on bullying and an action. HR departments must be empowered to act on it – if senior management made a statement that it’s not accepted. Everyone should be trained – made aware of what bullying is, what it looks like and how it feels. There need to be policies in place. Then, when it occurs, HR can act to deal with it.
There needs to be follow through and demonstrable action take – which could even mean termination of someone who has been bullying. The company really needs to invest in solid training about what bullying is and what it isn’t. They also need people who can mediate, and deal with conflict resolution – who can recognize it. As previously mentioned, policies and procedures are critical, but they’re not only meant to be written down – they’re meant to be communicated clearly from the top down.
What does bullying at work look like?
Some of these cues and recognizable symptoms of bullying behaviour could include excessive criticism, unreasonable job demands, threatening statements, insults and put downs, denying people accomplishments while taking credit for their work, exclusion and isolation. An alert HR department or supervisor will be able to tell the difference between an isolated incident and a bullying process.
There are many situations at work which can cause people stress and feel negative. Not every bad experience is indicative of bullying. Sometimes things don’t go well, mistakes are made, conflict happens. People in these situations can feel stress and anxiety – they can feel bad about the situation. Maybe they made a mistake and are being reprimanded for it. So then how does one know if it’s bullying, or a situational based incident?
A perceptive manager or HR professional will be able to observe some of the symptoms mentioned above, and some of the behaviours associated with chronic bullying. They may ask an employee how they’re doing, or how they’re feeling to start to get a sense of the story and the reasons for certain behaviours to tease out what the issue is – bullying or otherwise.
Even indicators like how many sick days are taken, attendance or punctuality can be associated with bullying – especially if there’s been a recent change in an employee. It can be associated with that employee switching managers or teams.
Sometimes you need a third party viewpoint in order to uncover bullying because a target might not tell anyone. However, their behaviour could change – maybe they just don’t seem like themselves lately. It can carry over from work into home life. Not only will someone seem withdrawn or unmotivated at work, but they may also lose interest in things they used to enjoy at home too.
Some other indications of bullying include extreme micromanagement, people taking or moving someone’s personal items, excessive praise and compliments immediately followed by excessive criticism and blame, emotional outbursts (crying or yelling) and behavioural change. Gaslighting – the bully makes the target feel as if they’re responsible.
Awareness is the first step
Ultimately, to remove the ‘power’ from bullying in the workplace, the company must take steps to expose it, to bring it out into the open for all to see and be aware of. Remember that bullying can be silent, hidden, supressed and subtle. This is precisely how it survives. Naturally, creating an environment where it can’t hide will make it hard for the process of bullying to persist. As mentioned before, this requires leadership from the top down to decide on policies for bullying, to bring awareness to the organization, training, and consequences for offences.
Pay attention to recruitment practices
As mentioned before, bullies are often not ‘made’ in the workplace, they enter the workplace already as bullies. This speaks to the recruitment process. Often the focus is on filling the slot without spending the time and effort digging into a candidate’s personality.
It’s also worth noting that most companies will not give a negative reference for someone who was a bully at a previous organization, so it’s up to the hiring company to screen for this behaviour. This could involve a third party perspective, some testing or assessments, and putting them into a work / job situation to see how they behave – it’s really the only time you will be able to pick up these behaviours and tendencies.
It also helps to have a thorough behavioural interview based on the job expectations. Often the job descriptions don’t accurately reflect what’s in the job – they get out of date, and focus exclusively on skills and qualifications only.
To tease out behaviour it’s really a combination of good behavioural interviewing (preferably a team-based interview with properly trained interviewers), plus assessments, plus an activity or work task that can be observed, plus a third party assessment (like a coach who is experienced in behavioural science). It may take time, money and effort to put people in different environments and give them practical and job-related tasks to do, but it’s much less expensive than dealing with someone that leaves, is terminated or creates a negative environment for other workers. There are ‘green costs’ – costs you see, and ‘red costs’ – those you don’t see, associated with this.
Companies should be cautious about using headhunters – they are great for finding a pool of talent, but it’s up to the company to assess fit and personality.
how to respond to workplace bullying
So what are some safe things that one can do to seek help with bullying in the workplace? As mentioned before, it’s tricky because there’s often a layer of fear, often of being punished or terminated. With gaslighting – targets of bullying often believe they deserve it or it’s their fault.
This is completely false; nobody deserves to be treated this way. While ignoring, not engaging and disconnecting from bullies might help – it’s not always possible, especially if the bullying is coming from management and leadership where there’s a large power imbalance. In that case, the truth of the matter is you are your own career manager. Employees have their own plans, aspirations, standards, needs and desires. If an organization or culture is not in alignment with those standards and goals then perhaps the next step is to start planning for an exit or change.
Professional coaches help with job transitions
A career coach could help someone start to put these plans in perspective and help prepare mentally for a change like this. It is very important for people to make their own decisions. When people lose the ability to make their own choices, their self-esteem suffers dramatically. Suffering from burn out, health problems, emotional distress and all the effects discussed before is not worth sticking around in a poor environment until one is forced to resign or is fired.
It’s always good to be prepared for future career developments and make decisions that are in your best interest, even if it means having no new job prospects immediately. Company loyalty is not rewarded the way it used to be. Having a good explanation of your career decisions and reasons you want to work with a company is more important than years of service or a ‘lack of gaps’ on your resume.
Coaching can be a powerful tool people can access to help them ‘get over the barriers’ and make decisions for themselves. These aren’t easy decisions. There are implications, risks and fears to be dealt with. “I can’t afford to not be working”. “What if my next job is worse than this one?”. “I don’t have time or energy to deal with this right now”. “I’m going to be bullied no matter where I go”.
Coaching provides a trusted third party advisor and a safe space to talk, discuss and determine a solution for where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. It helps define next steps, direction and action plans. You and the coach work together in a practical way to move yourself forward to the next step. We all have choices, and we all have a personal power to make decisions for ourselves. Transitions can be very difficult, but it’s important not to lose sight of what you want to do, and who you want to be. There are always choices that can be made to achieve those goals. You can and will get there, even if you need a little help pushing through the perceived barriers in your way.