Bullying at work

Many things can deeply affect our wellbeing, our sense of self, freedom and who we are every day. Bullying is one of those things. It can affect anyone and happen almost anywhere – in the playground, at school, work, in your social or sports club, at home or on online.

Bullying is a very serious matter and can have lasting and devastating consequences. There are many myths and misunderstandings around it. If you feel you are being bullied, it is important to read up on it and know your rights and the facts. Victims of bullying often don’t report it. They feel bad, embarrassed, confused and just want to get away from it. There are usually witnesses to bullying. If unaddressed, and unchecked it can have significant consequences for life – loneliness, isolation, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and even thoughts of, and suicide. It can have very serious consequences for the individual so should be dealt with swiftly and effectively. At work, it also has consequences for morale, business, litigation, teamwork and productivity.

While there is no universal definition of bullying, at work in Ireland, it is classified as: “repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, at the place of work and/or in the course of employment, which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual‘s right to dignity at work.” (Health and Safety Authority)

The main types of bullying include:

  • Verbal – includes name-calling, put downs, slagging, threats and sexual harassment.
  • Physical – includes being punched, tripped, kicked and having your things stolen or damaged and sexual abuse.
  • Social – includes being left out, excluded, ignored or having rumours spread about you.
  • Psychological – includes intimidation, stalking, manipulation, dirty looks and or unpredictable reactions.
  • Online bullying – includes offensive and abusive messages, hacking into accounts and or spreading rumours online.

Employers have duties related to bullying because they have to provide a safe space to work. Just this morning, I heard of someone that left their job two weeks before Christmas because they were being bullied. They spoke to their boss and got this response: ‘There is nothing I can do about that’ shrugging their shoulders and their responsibilities. This is an example of how an employer shouldn’t handle it.

At the time, the person wasn’t clear about their own rights and their employer’s responsibilities. Everyone lost. The person left their job. They and their family lost out. The employer lost a strong employee and empowered a bully. The bully went unchecked and may repeat the behaviour and create and get into even bigger trouble down the line.

If you feel you are being bullied, it is important first to assess what is happening objectively so you can solve it and have what you need for a clear case if you choose to escalate it. The following steps will help you do this:

  • Research the matter and policies in place – nationally and in your workplace including your organisation’s “Anti-bullying policy”
  • Check in with yourself ? Are you being objective or are you taking things personally?
  • Is there a basis to it ? e.g Work-related non-performance
  • Is there a personality ‘clash’?
  • Is it a repeated pattern of behaviour, picking you out, deliberately and offensively?
  • Document everything.

To accuse someone of bullying is also a very serious matter and should be done with due care and consideration.

People who bully generally have low self-esteem and often use bullying to make themselves feel better and distract from their own insecurities. They feel ‘less than’ in some way and project that. It is not because of what the other person has done or not done. Bullying is a learned behaviour.

Although we don’t have current statistics on the scale of bullying in the work place in Ireland, it is estimated that as many as one in three employees could be affected by bullying, according to a recent study by the US job site CareerBuilder.

‘According to the Anti-Bullying Centre at Dublin City University (DCU), which was established to carry out research into the subject, the effects of workplace bullying on individuals are widespread and include stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide’. ‘Workplaces as a whole suffer, with high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover, costly legal actions and tribunal proceedings, and a loss of public image if the bullying is revealed publicly’. (Irish Times)

Employers who have strong anti-bullying policies in place are less likely to face legal actions. The wise path for employers is to have proper procedures in place for dealing with bullying. Research by the Anti-Bullying Centre into cases between June 2013 and September 2015, which referenced bullying, showed that more than half of all employers did not have appropriate policies, or if they did, failed to follow the proper procedures.

On the employee side, many incidences of bullying go unreported because of stigma of feeling weak and the need for strong evidence to prove a case. Part of the difficulty is that bullying can be incredibly subjective.

If you are being bullied, or if you are an employer it is important to address it. As a person, your confidence, performance, health and wellbeing at work where you spend most of your waking time depends on it. As an employer, the wellbeing, creativity and productivity of your most important asset depends on it.

Below are some of the key steps in addressing a bullying situation:

  1. Document everything and keep copies of any relevant information/materials.
  2. Look at your organisation’s Anti-Bullying policy and follow its guidelines.
  3. Report the matter to someone in an HR or management position or to the relevant point person.Don’t delay. The quicker such matters are dealt with, the quicker it is for the problem to solve and for people to move on. Problems of this nature can escalate quickly and do more serious and lasting damage if unaddressed.
  4. If this is not successful, mediation may work.
  5. Alternatively, a formal investigation of the facts may be required
  6. Apart from your employer, the workplace contact unit at the HSA is a very useful contact.If you ask them, they will contact your employer asking for their anti-bullying policy, without your employer knowing your involvement.
  7. The Labour Relations Commission, the Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation and the Equality Authority may also be able to help depending the nature of your query.

Sources:  The HSA, The Irish Times, The Anti-Bullying Centre at Dublin City University (DCU)

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