Witnesses to workplace bullying consider quitting more than the victims

by Human Capital23 Jul 2012

Witnesses to workplace bullying often have a stronger urge to leave the workplace than the actual victims – and this can impact a company’s bottom line new research has found.

It is common to assume that the people who are bullied bear the full brunt of the behaviour – but this study found people across an organisation experience a moral indignation when others are bullied which can make them want to leave in protest, said study co-author Sandra Robinson, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

These findings indicate that the corrosive effects of bullying in the workplace may be more dramatic and costly than previously thought, she said. “All of the research respondents who experienced bullying, either directly or indirectly, reported a greater desire to quit their jobs than those who did not, and yet the people who experienced it as bystanders, or with less frequency, reported wanting to quit in even greater numbers, Robinson said.

Even if such employees did not leave their workplace, an organisation's productivity could suffer severely if staff members had an unrealised desire to leave, warned Robinson. Managers need to be aware that the behaviour is pervasive and it can have a mushrooming effect that goes well beyond the victims. Ultimately bullies can hurt the bottom line and need to be dealt with quickly and publicly so that justice is restored to the workplace.

In Canada and the US the publication of the research has provoked renewed debate on the issue of workplace bullying. Most commentators agree the problem is getting worse but, while some claim anti-bullying policies are not the solution, others insist they are the only way to deal with the problem.

In Australia, the recent announcement of a Federal Government review into workplace bullying is likely to result in increased scrutiny on the role of workplace culture in preventing and responding to bullying.

According to one employment law firm, undertaking regular ‘audits’ to highlight behavioural issues and risks is a place to start. “The Federal Government’s increased focus on workplace culture means the pressure is now on employers to elevate the importance of regular culture audits to ensure the values and virtues outlined in mission statements are a reality,” Joydeep Hor from People and Culture Strategies (PCS) said. Hor added that while culture audits are not yet common practice, they are essential to raising red flags that may expose potential workplace issues. “In many cases, the values and mission statement have become merely paper-policies, which are not being lived and breathed throughout the organisation,” he said.

To effectively manage a workplace culture, employers first need to be attuned to signals of a problem or gap in the culture.  Hor added that an increase in staff turnover, grievances and absenteeism are key indicators that there may be an issue with the workplace culture. “Developing and maintaining the right culture in a workplace is important for many reasons. Firstly, positive workplace culture can ensure the health and wellbeing of the organisation’s employees and secondly, it can reduce an employer’s risk profile in terms of its exposure to bullying, discrimination and harassment-type claims,” Hor said.


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  • by Deborah 23/07/2012 4:11:06 PM

    Sadly, our current IR laws make it nearly impossible to take a "zero tolerance" stance on bullying and similar unnacceptable behaviour in the workplace. There have been a number of times when I have been aware of bullying in the workplace, but staff are unwilling to make formal complaints or take part in an investigation due to any potential fallout. And if a "zero tolerance" stand is taken and you terminate the "bully" you leave yourself wide open for an unfair dismissal case or worse. I believe the current IR laws have made it nearly impossible for companies to manage and protect their staff effectively. IR laws need to change to support companies in protecting their employees.

  • by Bernie Althofer 24/07/2012 8:53:05 AM

    Making financial decisions to leave the security of employment for an uncertain future can be difficult when either directly or indirectly involved with a workplace bullying incident.

    In some cases, it does appear that keeping ones head down and trying to ignore the unfolding trauma and misery is a strategy being used more often than not.

    In cases where the bystander or witness decides to leave, they may find that to leave successfully, they need to not mention the real reasons why they leave. For example, in a recent situation, a public sector employee indicated that by the time they left one agency for another, they had already been identified as a 'troublemaker' simply because they were prepared to stand up and be counted. The tentacles of bullying behaviour spread across organisations and to some extent, this may be a strategy used by bullies to 'control' those who dare speak up.

    A number of discussions in various forums have highlighted how current resolution options work in favour of the organisation and the bully, and very little support is provided to assist or support either the target or the witnesses/bystanders.

    So far, there has been little public discussion on the links between bullying and corruption or even official misconduct. Views in relation to this could depend on whether or not bullying is seen as an abuse of power and/or authority. If a view is taken that bullying fits into this category, then this might provide an alternate approach to reporting and investigating bullying allegations. At the same time, changes to the Work Health and Safety legislation should mean that bullying is treated as a psychologicial injury, and in these cases, it should mean that allegations and incidents are reported and investigated as breaches of work health and safety legislation.

    Still, changing workplace cultures so that bystanders/witnesses are supported and encouraged to report incidents might be difficult when the full extent of bullying (including unreported incidents) is not really known with any certainity.

    Conducting workplace audits and assessments can help to identify the causal factors. However, getting past the gatekeepers can be difficult if there is a perception based on long standing practices or even past reports that condone, tolerate, or accept bullying, or in some case, provide officers with a belief that there is no problem because there are no reports.

  • by Erika Ford 1/08/2012 2:25:07 PM

    While researching Workplace bullying & harassment for developing an eLearning module, I have realised widespread confusion relating to bullying, discrimination, workplace violence and what can only be regarded as stalking. Though bullying may include some of these behaviours, many employers are generally ignorant about the levels of danger arising from harm, (and in some cases, self-harm) to victims. Observors rightly feel pressured to "do something" when witnessing bullying, though it is a pity that many decide to leave rather than intervene. In this day and age we are all responsible to maintain appropriate behaviours at work and in life. Surely fair play should come into this, apart from the legal arguements for stopping this vile behaviour?

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