Most employees seem to have been on the receiving end of the workplace bully at some stage in their respective careers. The concept was probably first documented by Andrea Adams in 1992 in her book: “Bullying at work: How to confront and overcome it”, but the practice has existed for many centuries. Workplace bullying is a persistent pattern of mistreatment that causes either physical or emotional harm. Bullying includes such tactics as verbal or non-verbal, psychological or physical abuse and humiliation. This type of workplace aggression is particularly obscure because, unlike the typical school bully, workplace bullies often operate within the established rules and policies of the organisation and society as a whole. Bullying can be overt or covert, is often missed by superiors, but may be known by many in the company. It doesn’t just impact the targeted individual negatively, but seems to have a pervasive negative impact on employee morale and company culture. Catherine Mattice and Karen Garman (Proactive Solutions for Workplace Bullying: Looking at the Benefits of Positive Psychology) define it as: “Systematic, aggressive communication, manipulation of work, and acts aimed at humiliating or degrading one or more individuals that create an unhealthy and unprofessional power imbalance between bully and target(s), resulting in psychological consequences for targets and co-workers and costing enormous monetary damage to the organisation’s bottom line”.
Workplace bullying negatively impacts company income, quality, customer service, culture and productivity and this fact should not be ignored. Targets of bullying instinctively and immediately attempt to protect themselves – the result is avoidance, bitterness, lower levels of communication, disheartenment, distraction, feelings of intimidation and dread, a lack of focus and energy, isolation, absenteeism, ill health and lower self-esteem, all impacting creativity and productivity. Targets are typically skilled employees, well-liked or popular, perhaps non-confrontational or vulnerable, but good people nevertheless. The forms of bullying often include one or more of the following (according to The Guardian):
- Overbearing supervision
- Constant criticism
- Blocking promotion
- Exclusion, for example, from lunches and drinks, relevant meetings and important e-mails
- Being overworked, with expectations of unreasonable response times
- Making threats or comments about job security without foundation
- Harassment, for example, being frequently teased and humiliated about a disability that you have
What can be done to protect oneself against the workplace bully? Tolerance of the bully’s behaviour is not an option as this just trains the bully to continue with the reprehensible actions. The following approach takes courage, but is necessary to realise a bully-free environment:
- Set limits on what you will tolerate – these are the boundaries (both personal and professional) with which you feel most comfortable and which allow you to get on with your work with ease.
- Confront the bully – describe the actual behaviour of the bully (e.g.: you regularly enter my office, lean on my shoulder and read my personal correspondence). Do not give opinions like: “I think you are nasty” – this is meaningless to the bully.
- Tell the bully how his behaviour is having a negative impact on your work – for example, “as much of my work is confidential, your behaviour makes me feel like I need to hide my work from you and change computer screens, which wastes my time”.
- Tell the bully what behaviour you are not going to allow in the future – for example: “my office is my private working area – do not enter it unless I invite you to do so”.
- Document the bully’s behaviour and any agreement you have established with him – keep a record.
- If necessary, have a meeting with the head of Human Resources – produce documentation and illustrate the steps that you have taken to put a stop to the bullying.
A workplace bully’s behaviour needs to be stopped. Bullying not only affects the target employee negatively, but also damages the company culture, reduces trust, induces low morale, impedes effective communication and harms quality and productivity levels.