Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Some myths surrounding bullying and harassment in the workplace

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can have a significant negative impact on employee wellbeing and corporate morale and productivity. The effects can be as far reaching as stress related absence, long term sickness, loss of talent and potentially expensive and damaging legal claims.

In the UK, a survey of 7000 HR professionals noted that every single one believed that bullying was ‘embedded in workplace culture’. It is estimated that employers’ failure to tackle the root cause of bullying costs in excess of £13 billion a year (Unite Union)

There continue to be many misconceptions regarding this emotive subject and this article debunks some of the myths surrounding bullying and harassment.

Bullying and harassment are the same thing:
Not exactly. Bullying and harassment are separate concepts but they can have the same effect on an individual – summarised as unwelcome, unwanted and unwarranted.

It is acceptable to adopt one corporate policy to deal with both bullying and harassment. The main issue is not to label the unwelcomed behaviour, but to provide a robust framework to deal with complaints and to educate employees and managers.

For the rest of this article I shall call the ‘perpetrator’ the ‘bully’ but you could equally substitute this with ‘harasser’

Victims are weak:
Not true. It is more appropriate to refer to a ‘victim’ of bullying or harassment as the ‘target’. The archetypal vision of a bullying situation in school is a big, strong bully beating up (physically or verbally) a diminutive, weak or vulnerable victim. This tends not to be the case in the workplace. Bullying can happen to anyone, from senior directors to new recruits. Targets may have some form of vulnerability such as a difficult family situation or financial reliance on the job, but that doesn’t mean they are weak. Targets are often popular, capable, socially adept and expert. This can cause great difficulties for targets as when they instigate a complaint procedure, often the first reaction is ‘but you are always so upbeat/cheerful/on top of things’.

Most bullies are male:
Again not true. Yes, the stereotypical bully is the male boss who either behaves as a sexual predator or intimidates his female target or subordinate male target. Bullying in the workplace can be insidious, psychological and emotional, with no physical strength required. The ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ is a well known obstacle for women to succeed with a female boss. Surprisingly, ‘the sisterhood’ is not a positive force when it comes to career progression and promotion.

Most bullies are managers:
Not always. Yes – bullying bosses are more common, but bullies can operate upwards and along as well as down.  Managers subjected to bullying are usually particularly loathe to admit this perceived weakness.

Poor management is responsible for bullying:
Yes and no. Poor management doesn’t create a bully but can enable a bullying environment to exist. A poor manager may bully or harass staff members due to his own inadequacy. A UK survey by Ban Bullying at Work found that two thirds of 500 managers quizzed believed that their own behaviour was a major contributing factor to a bullying problem. The culture of an organisation is also key, especially in allowing sexist or racist views to go uncensored.

If you downplay a bullying situation, the problem will go away:
A foolish dream. Uncontrolled bullying or harassment will either lead to an expensive and damaging lawsuit or the loss of talent.

Bullies are born, not made:
Tricky one. Does someone start life with a bullying streak? Have all bullies been bullied themselves? Probably not. The one common link that all bullies seem to display is a sense of inadequacy and fail to accept responsibility for their behaviour. A boss who knows that his subordinate is wiser, more experienced or more popular may use that as an excuse to harass or bully. Individual members of peer groups are particularly susceptible to bullying due to jealousy. Events that can trigger bullying of a target include departure of a previous target, reorganisation, the target being a focus of praise due to exceptional achievement or sticking to a rule which the bully wants to break.

Bullies work alone:
Not always true. Bullying can be undertaken by groups of people, working together to isolate their target.

Bullying and harassment will get worse in this economic climate:
Entirely possible. As workplace pressure increases the environment is more conducive to bullying. It is estimated that in excess of 200,000 bullied employees in the UK leave their jobs every year rather than go down the complaint route. As jobs become harder to find, targets are more likely to take leave of absence due to stress or suffer in silence.  This form of presenteeism (working while under par, stressed or ill) will have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing with a resultant loss of productivity.

A final indisputable truth:
There has never been a more crucial time to adopt a robust, workable and well publicised bullying and harassment policy. Tailored training and awareness can be highly effective in minimising the occurrence of harassment and bullying and can protect both the individual and the organisation from the effects of such behaviour.

This article was written by me on behalf of the Institute of Welfare and appears in the Autumn edition of their journal, Welfare World


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