What workplace bullying is (and what it isn't)
I think the word ‘bullying’ is bandied around way too quickly in many workplaces. From my experience in mediating disputes between colleagues, most of the time the challenges are not bullying at all.
It is more people who are under pressure, who have not yet worked out how to work in well with each other, or people not appreciating that is part of a leaders job to speak to staff about performance concerns.
Though, having said that, I have also worked with some pretty clear-cut examples. It often amazes me how one person’s awful behaviour can be tolerated for so long, despite it affecting so many people in the workplace.
Safe Work Australia defines workplace bullying as repeated, unreasonable behaviour, that creates a risk to people’s health and safety.
While you might think that the 'safety' part of that definition is official-speak, we have to remind ourselves that some people are subjected to physical harm and assaults in the worst examples of workplace bullying.
Examples of the more common behaviour that may be considered to be workplace bullying if they are repeated, unreasonable and create a risk to people’s health and safety include:
- Abusive, insulting or offensive language or comments
- Unjustified criticism or complaints
- Deliberately excluding someone from workplace activities
- Withholding information that is vital for effective work performance
- Setting unreasonable timelines or constantly changing deadlines
- Setting tasks that are unreasonably below or beyond a person’s skill level
- Denying access to information, supervision, or resources to the detriment of the worker
- Spreading misinformation or malicious rumours
- Changing work arrangements, such as rosters and leave, to deliberately inconvenience
If ever you have been on the receiving end of such behaviour, it certainly does come at a cost.
A survey of people who have been bullied by No Bull! Australia in 2010, found:
- 100% say their morale was affected
- 67% say productivity at their workplace reduced by up to 40%
- 49.9% said that the bully was responsible for 4-7 staff leaving over past 1-2 years
- About 80% of people targeted experience mental health or sleeping problems
- 5.5% had suicidal thoughts
But there are a range of reasonable behaviours that are often misunderstood as bullying. These include:
- Speaking to a colleague about their unsatisfactory or inappropriate behaviour
- Not selecting a worker for promotion where a reasonable process has been followed
- Accessing support from colleagues
- Differences of opinion and conflicts (but these could easily escalate to bullying)
- A single incident of unreasonable behaviour, but this should not be ignored
- Giving reasonable direction to team members
- Taking disciplinary action when a reasonable process has been followed
Some of us have been on the receiving end of unfair accusations that are taken at face value, that are poorly investigated, perhaps by a biased or poorly-skilled individual. Too readily, frustrations escalate to a formal grievance when issues could have been dealt with earlier and informally.
So, it is important that workplaces have very good policies about what workplace bullying is, what to do to resolve difficulties, and how formal complaints will be dealt with.
There are, of course, other actions that leaders and team members can take to reduce the likelihood of bullying, respond effectively to complaints, and encourage stronger, more positive team relationships.