Workplace bullying: Recognising it when you see it

If you have ever been on the receiving end of workplace bullying, you will know how much of an impact it has on your health and well-being. You dread going to work. Certainly your performance suffers. Some of us resign or gain a transfer, finding this easier to do than putting up with the situation or trying to influence change. Although there are many different types of workplace bullying, it can be defined simply as ‘behaviour that is unreasonable, offensive, or harmful that is repeated over time'. Here is one person's story.

Peter was a long-serving and respected professional in a government department that was under a lot of pressure and going through lots of staff changes. His new acting manager was dealing with a high workload and insufficient staff numbers and this affected the way he related to people. He took shortcuts with the way he spoke to his staff, often giving curt directives with unrealistic timeframes. He dealt with frustrations by taking it out on his team. Peter responded by working longer hours, but the workload and pressures simply increased along with disapproving responses from his manager. Peter felt that his manager was unapproachable. Peter's health worsened, he was diagnosed with anxiety, and he eventually went on stress-leave for six months.

There is no doubt that bullying is an inappropriate use of power. This abuse of power may well come from someone more senior, such as in Peter's story. But many managers report being bullied by people in positions junior to them. A person's power can also come from their verbal skills, ability to intimidate or cut people down, or get co-workers to side with them. You will see an example of this in the following story.

Janelle had recently been appointed as a team leader in her workplace, leap-frogging another woman who had been acting in that role. Unfortunately for Janelle, some team members did not feel good about her appointment, believing that the person who had been acting in the role had deserved the position. Over the next few months, Janelle experienced a lack of cooperation from certain team members, resistance to reasonable requests she made, and people siding with the person who had been acting as manager. For support, she turned to her manager, who convened a meeting of her team, with Janelle present. He told the team to be open in their criticism of Janelle, telling Janelle to ‘suck it up'. Janelle felt humiliated and completely unsupported. After using up all her sick leave, she decided it was easier to resign.

Other examples of workplace bullying include constant criticism or insults, being spoken to disrespectfully on a regular basis, excluding individuals, unfairly allocating work, setting impossible deadlines, deliberately with-holding information or resources that are vital for someone's work, manipulating others to take sides, and distributing material that is degrading or offensive to certain individuals. Workplace bullying is not reasonable actions taken by management or individuals - performance management handled respectfully by management, a team member turning to another person for support, or an isolated, disrespectful episode.

The cost of workplace bullying is enormous when you take into account reduced morale and performance and increased sick days and staff turnover. The cost of workplace bullying in Australia has been estimated at $15 billion. It doesn't have to be this way.

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